My daughter has magic pajamas. If she wears a particular set of pajamas, she falls asleep at 7:30pm and sleeps past 5am. I know what you’re thinking, but it’s TRUE. For as long as I can remember, my 5 year-old daughter’s been refusing to go to sleep and stay asleep. She’s awake for hours, wanting me to sleep with her, hopping in and out of her bed, or appearing in ours. She then wakes up bright and sparky at 5am. Gosh, I’m tired, just so, so tired. I’m so tired that often I can’t even complete my senten…
I’m also frustrated. I’ve tried a crazy number of methods to try to fix this; in fact, since she was born, I’ve tried too many for my sleep-deprived brain to remember – pick up/put down, a lighter room, a darker room, “wake to sleep” (ugh), a thick comforter, a thin comforter, no comforter, earlier bedtime, later bedtime, shorter nap, longer nap, more milk, less milk, co-sleeping, solo-sleeping, gradual retreat, no retreat… must somehow… find… a way… to get… some… sleep… or I’m going to go… crazzzzzzzzzzzzzzz… y…
BUT (shhhh) for the past two mornings, she’s gone to sleep at 7.30pm and woken up at SIX, oops, shhhhh… six. After much analysis, I’ve calculated that the crucial difference is some new pajamas. Thus, they’re clearly magic. If I control the pajamas, I control the world. Tada!
OK, so I realize that the pajamas might not be entirely magic. I also realize there isn’t some single, cure-all magic bullet. Some methods claim they work for every child all of the time, but can that really be true? What does science tell us? Is there anything we can do which might help our child (and ourselves) have a better night’s sleep…or at least help us stay sane during the inexplicable times sleep just isn’t happening?
What makes you tick? The secrets of your body clock.
I’m actually super excited by what I’ve found. I’ve discovered that Chronobiology (“Chrono” meaning “clock”), the science of body clocks, is fast becoming one of the most respected and promising areas of current scientific research. It just might hold the secret to a good night’s sleep.
Here are some solidly researched tips based on the science of Chronobiology to help your child go to sleep and stay in the land of zzz:
- Red = Sleepyhead, but Blue = Boo Hoo. Get the right night-light.
You may have already heard of Melatonin – it’s now a widely-used drug – but did you know that it’s produced naturally by our bodies and controls our body clocks? That’s right, Melatonin is a hormone secreted by our brains, which shuts down our bodies ready for sleep. To make sure we’re in synch with the natural world around us, Melatonin also has another clever characteristic; Melatonin, aka the Vampire Hormone, is killed off by light. Melatonin makes you tired when it’s dark and is then slowly destroyed by light in the morning, releasing you from its sleepy grasp and waking you up. So, shut those blackout curtains and switch off all the lights when you want your child to sleep.
You’ve probably already tried that, but you may also be using a night-light. Ahh, that soothing, blue light; just right to send your little one off to sleep whilst helping them to feel safe and sound, right? Nope. Very wrong. The type of light that melatonin hates most is the one which wakes up at dawn, blue light. The light that melatonin doesn’t mind so much is red light.
If a night-light helps your child, seek one out which exudes red light (under 100 lux). Manufacturers have been slow to catch on to this science fact, but red night lights do exist; I’ve bought a string of red LED lights for my daughter, which send out a super-cozy light.
If you’re still breast-feeding, do it in the dark or with a red light to prevent burning off that melatonin.
- Nap in the light… even if it seems weird.
If we stay in constant light, our bodies, including our melatonin, show a natural 24-hourish rhythm. This rhythm isn’t around until 3 months old, so if your child is younger than that, their melatonin levels and natural rhythms will be all over the place. Sorry. It’s not until after around 4-5 months that their rhythms can become more solidly established and they’ll be able to do most of their sleeping at night. You can help encourage your kids into a 24 hour day/night cycle by having them nap in the light. This’ll keep their melatonin levels down during the day and encourage high levels when bedtime comes. The same applies to your kids no matter how old they are. Nap in the light. Sleep in the dark.
- Yup, those pesky screens again!
What do screens emit? Blue light. What does melatonin hate? Blue light. No melatonin, no sleep. It’s best to avoid screens for 1-2 hours before bed. Screen use during that time can cause delays of an hour or more in falling asleep. Long-term this can cause many mental and physical health issues. Researchers have also found that the longer a young person spent looking at an electronic screen before going to bed, the worse quality sleep they were likely to have during the night. If removing screens feels like an impossibility, you can buy orange-ish filters for them which helps to reduce the effect.
Even more surprising are the studies revealing that teenagers who spend more than four hours staring at screens (at any time of the day) have a 49% greater risk of taking longer than an hour to fall asleep. They were also 3 and a-half times more likely to sleep for under 5 hours a night. I know it’s tricky, but finding alternatives to screen time and keeping screens out of your child’s bedroom will be seriously worth it in the long-run.
- Bathe them to sleep.
Taking a warm bath can help your kids fall asleep. That’s warm not hot. This is important. Our bodies have natural temperature rhythms. One of our body’s signals for ‘sleepy time’ is a drop in body temperature. It happens naturally and sparks an increase in melatonin.
Taking a warm bath one to two hours before sleep will artificially raise our body temperature, which will then drop slowly when we get out of the tub into a cooler environment. Noticed those post-bathtime yawns? That’s your body temperature drop signaling to your brain that it’s time to send us to sleep. But, if the bath is too hot, we stay hot and bothered for longer and the technique isn’t as effective.
- Feed them to sleep.
I don’t mean tiring them out by getting them to eat until they’re exhausted (although I’ve considered this!). Rice, sweetcorn, cherries , grapes and oats contain melatonin. If munched in the evening, they can help make us feel sleepy. Poultry and nuts contain tryptophan, which is a key ingredient in melatonin production, so get your little one to gnaw on a chicken leg during bed-time stories (ha ha… maybe earlier?). Milk, too, contains tryptophan… just forget the sugary cookies!
- Don’t tire them out… huh?
ME: Go on, run! Get tired! Please!
How many times have I chased my son around trying to wear him out before bed? Research suggests that exercise keeps people alert for up to 2 hours afterwards. Exercise raises your body temperature and stops that “go to sleep” signal I mentioned in the “bath” section. It also disrupts your natural cycle of lowered heart rate and blood pressure just prior to sleep and stimulates “awake-making” brain chemicals. At least an hour’s exercise a day will lead to better health and sleep, but try to make sure it doesn’t happen in the last few hours before bed. Chasing your child around to get their magic PJs on doesn’t count!
- Tell them a very special story.
ME: Let’s try focusing on our breathing.
Meditation boosts melatonin at night and aids sleep. My over-tired little one was not keen on “just breathing,” so I wrote her a sleep story meditation. Here it is below: Told by a new GoZen character, it’s designed to send kids off to zzz-land on their very own dream-cloud. Both my 5 year-old and 8 year-old love it… phew! It helps to transport them to a happy place and banish their worries as well.
- Listen to their story
ME: OK, lights out (almost able to taste the glass of wine waiting for me downstairs…)
DAUGHTER/SON: I have a million, trillion things I must tell you immediately and in great detail before you get to have that “you-time” you’re craving.
Do you find your child wants to talk through their day when you’re just desperate to get them to sleep and escape to “Me Time?” Me too. I also thought that this was just a delay tactic by my child or simply separation anxiety around wanting to be with me. Turns out I was wrong (again)! When we’re tired, the emotional part of our brains, the amygdala gets more active. This makes it harder for us to think through problems and raises our anxiety levels.
Cortisol, an alertness-raising hormone, has the opposite rhythm to melatonin and drops at night. If we’re anxious and stressed, this cortisol dip is less likely to happen. Ping! We’re awake. Helping kids think through their worries and fears may be essential to helping them get to sleep.
How can we help them work through their anxieties?
- Incorporate a lights-on “chat time” into your schedule by heading upstairs a bit earlier. This’ll stop your clock-watching and allow time to acknowledge your child’s worries and thoughts.
- Talk about what they’re feeling. I know there’s a tendency to avoid talking about night-mares or worrying thoughts, especially at night, as if we’ll plant a scary seed. The thing is, that seed is already there; if we ignore it, it’ll only grow. Research shows that ignoring your kids’ night-time fears can lead to more emotional difficulties and nightmares. Talk about what they are feeling. Draw what they are feeling or fearing. Make an “imagination book” where they write or draw what’s inside their heads and hearts.
- Validate what your kids are feeling by relating to it. I’ve shared stories with my kids about fears I’ve overcome. They’ll feel connected, safe and reassured.
- What’s happened during the day? Has something raised their stress hormone levels? Chat through their day. If they tell you something that stresses YOU out, try not to show it. Your child will pick up on these cues if she thinks you’re fearful or anxious.
- Are YOU stressed? My kids once commented that they preferred Daddy to read their stories because “he doesn’t rush.” Broke my heart. They were able to feel my stress and anxiousness to move onto my relaxation time. It kept them awake.
- What are they waiting for? My son always asks for whoever hasn’t put him to bed to, “Come and give me a cuddle and a kiss later.” My husband and I would always say, “Yes, I’ll ask them…” and, sure enough, an hour later, our son’d shout down “WHERE’S MY KISS?!” He’d been lying up there waiting for ages because we hadn’t specified WHEN the kiss would be. He’d even started worrying that something terrible had happened to the promised Kisser. Now, if the other parent’s busy, we say, “They’ll come when you’re asleep.” Seems to be working so far!
- Acknowledge the frightening thoughts, then move through to images of happiness, bravery and safety. Go on a journey of imagination during the day or night in which your child is the hero. My daughter has saved her bedtime bunny from a fate worse than Mr McGregor in some awesome ways lately!
OK, this might be frustrating to hear, but your child simply might not be sleepy as early as you’d like them to be. 1 in 5 kids under 5 are put to sleep before their natural surge in melatonin has even begun. Studies have also found that the average toddler’s surge in melatonin happens at around 7:30pm. They’ve also discovered that it normally takes about 2 hours for this surge to make us sleepy, but most of those kids were told to have their lights out at around 8:15pm. That left them with 45 minutes of lying in the dark whilst their little brains still thought it was party time. No wonder small worries can become so large. No wonder bedtime becomes a source of stress and resistance.
Different people have different melatonin surge times. Larks have them earlier in the mornings and evenings; Owls have them later. From age 9 onwards most kids change from generally being Larks to moving towards Owls. Teens are naturally programmed to stay up and sleep late. Schools which changed their schedules to a later start and end time to work with the teen’s body-clocks have shown an unprecedented boost in teen productivity.
Even if your child is under 9 years-old, they could still be naturally inclined to fall asleep later. Only by watching and learning, can we discover what our child’s natural sleep cycle is. Are they over-tired in the day or just genuinely lively late at night or early in the morning? You could try waking them earlier and exposing them to bright light to try to shift their cycles earlier, or vice versa with light at night, but maybe it might be more sanity-preserving to work with rather than against their rhythms.
And you know what? Even if your little one isn’t getting as much sleep as someone else’s, that does NOT mean you’re a bad parent. How much sleep kids actually need is still wide open to debate. The ranges of “need” per age seem to vary from study to study and country to country. Be a bit kinder to yourself with your “shoulds.”
I’ll be using the magic pajamas again tonight… but eventually I’ll have to wash them (I’ll give it 3 weeks ;)). And at that point, after panicking, shouting and crying, I’m going to have to accept that I only have so much control over when my daughter wakes up and goes to sleep and that driving myself nuts by finding a single magic-bullet can be more tiring than the actual loss of sleep. To help me during the tricky times, though, I’m going to try a combination of the tips above. At least now I know what science says rather than relying on rumor, myth and “magic.”
And now I’m off to be really productive and… zzzzzzzzz…
Want to help your kids sleep better? Try our Resilient Child Meditations here.