Have you begun to dread bedtime as a parent, because no matter what you do, your child has trouble falling asleep?
Is your child adamant that he is not tired?
Even with a structured routine, sometimes a child cannot relax and fall asleep. This can cause nightly disruption to the entire household. It frazzles nerves of parents and children and can lead to resentment, discouragement, and frustration — not a very conducive environment for being a positive parent!
When morning arrives, the child is still tired, slow waking up, and lacking energy during the school day. The child may experience difficulty focusing, display behavior issues, and exhibit poor decision-making. For younger children, the sleep loss leaves them sensitive and less able to cope with upset.
Does this sound familiar?
It is possible your child is experiencing a disruption to his circadian rhythm and is truly unable to fall asleep at bedtime.
Circadian rhythm is a natural biological clock that runs on an approximate 24-hour cycle. It governs sleep and wake cycles, as well as a multitude of cellular and hormonal processes in the body.
We experienced this with one of our elementary school aged children. He was impossible to wake up each morning. At bedtime, he was never tired. After resolving my own sleep issues, I realized that he was likely suffering from some of the same circadian rhythm issues that I had experienced.
When the circadian rhythm gets out of sync with the time clock schedule, the body is not prepared to fall asleep at night and is not prepared to wake up at the appropriate time in the morning. The inability to fall asleep at night can affect both children and adults.
Under normal circadian rhythm cycles, cortisol decreases and melatonin increases at bedtime. Melatonin is a hormone secreted in the pineal gland. It induces sleep-related changes in the body such as lower body temperature and slower respiration rates.
When the circadian rhythm is out of sync with a normal sleep/wake schedule, cortisol can remain high and melatonin can fail to rise. This leaves the body feeling wide awake at bedtime.
No matter how many bedtime stories are read, or how much begging or reasoning is done, sleep just does not come easily.
Bedtime insomnia can be caused by multiple triggers, however, light is the greatest influencer of circadian rhythm.
If sleep readiness is an issue for your child, there are several actions you can take to create an environment that helps synchronize his circadian rhythm with the time clock.
Turn off electronics earlier in the evening
In our society, families are often exposed to blue light in the evening hours. Blue light emitted from televisions, computers, tablets, phones, and game devices interfere with the normal evening melatonin production in the body. The newest light bulbs, LEDs, emit the highest levels of blue light wavelengths.
If turning off devices completely is not practical, other options include blue-light filtering glasses or blue-light filtering software. We instituted the use of blue-light blocking glasses. These glasses can be worn while watching television and effectively block out all blue light wavelengths.
For school-age children, homework assignments often require the use of computers. Having children complete these earlier in the afternoon will benefit their sleep cycle. You can also get free downloadable filtering software called f.lux. It is available for cell phones and computers here. Some electronic reading devices now come with a bedtime reading light filter pre-installed. Make sure it is activated if such a device is being used in the evening.
Create a dark bedroom
Use black-out curtains to create a completely dark bedroom. I found that even with blackout curtains, I had to double them up to get a full black-out effect. If your child is afraid of the dark, any night lights used should have red bulbs. The wavelength of red light will not inhibit sleep.
Remove or cover any clocks, radios, air filters, or other devices that emit light in the green or blue color range. The short wavelengths of the electronic blue light disrupt melatonin production more than any other type of light.
Get the temperature right
A bedroom that is too cold or too hot will disrupt sleep. The ideal temperature for sleep is generally between 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit. Adjust the temperature depending on the humidity, bedding, and bed clothes of the child. Generally, children will sleep best with light clothing.
Start the day with sunlight
Exposure to full spectrum morning light is another way to help synchronize the body’s circadian rhythm with the clock cycle. Exposure to full spectrum light turns off melatonin production in the morning and begins to raise the cortisol levels.
How do you bring full spectrum light into your busy life? Take the children for a walk outside in the morning. Exposure to full spectrum light can also be accomplished from a shaded outdoor patio. Enjoy breakfast al fresco. It is important to note that the body does not need to be in direct sunlight.
On the drive to school, we leave the windows down a bit when weather permits.
Another option is a full spectrum light box. Always consult a pediatrician prior to usage with a child. A photo therapy light can be purchased online for $80- $150.
Rigorous, active play is not only good for the body, it is good for the mind and for sleep. It is important for children to get activity during the daytime hours. During the evening hours, transition to quiet activities such as puzzles, games, and reading.
Stick to a schedule
Maintaining a schedule of sleeping and waking at the same time each day also fosters stronger, restorative sleep. If you have not already had a patterned bedtime routine, now is the time to create one.
When we evaluated our bedtime routine, we found it had become rather erratic. It takes discipline to stick to a regular schedule, especially over weekends. The more consistent a bedtime routine can be maintained, the better sleep will be.
A warm bath can help foster sleepiness, as it simulates the body’s natural cooling process that occurs at night. Reading bedtime stories can also set the proper mood. Use an amber light to avoid disruption to melatonin production.
Some children enjoy relaxing music or guided imagery. I Can Relax! A Relaxation CD for Children by Donna B. Pincus, was produced by the Child Anxiety Network. It provides a guided relaxation process for children that teaches them how to release tension and anxiety from their bodies and minds. It is suitable for children ages four and up.
The effects of the morning light and afternoon light blocking can take several days to show full effect. In the meantime, it is a great opportunity to educate your child about the body’s sleep pattern and why it is important. For school age children, this is information that they are often not taught in school.
We found that within a week of instituting these changes, our son was ready for bed at an appropriate time. He was also easier to wake up in the morning. He still remains more of an evening person than a morning person. However, by maintaining a schedule and good sleep habits, he can wake up full rested and fall sleep quickly at night.
Watch your child for sleep cues. You may find as you improve the synchronization of the clock time and circadian rhythm, the child’s natural bedtime is a bit earlier than expected. In those cases, adjust the bedtime routine to accommodate the child’s natural schedule.
Children with healthy sleep habits have a higher probability of growing into adults with healthy sleep patterns. For parents, it is important to know these same techniques are recommended for adults. It is very common for adults to short-change their own sleep. Maximize your sleep by participating in the same sleep hygiene activities as your children.
Sleep is a necessity for parents and children alike. If your child continues to have difficulty sleeping, contact your pediatrician.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
For our contemplation exercise today, let’s take quick stock –
- How much electronics are in use after supper in your household?
- Conduct a light audit of all bedrooms. Do you have inadequate curtains or any devices that put out green or blue spectrum light?
- When your child wakes up, are they exposed to full spectrum light (preferably sunlight) to get their circadian rhythm synced up with time clock?
- Do you have a relatively consistent sleep schedule?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
- Pick several ways to expose the family to morning light. Have options to use in all different types of weather.
- Replace inadequate curtains with light-blocking curtains.
- When you purchase new devices for bedrooms, be mindful of the light color they emit. Avoid blue and green.
- Create rules for electronic device use and when they are/are not allowed in bedroom spaces.
Continue to educate your child on sleep habits and the lifestyle choices that affect them. As they become more independent in their tweens and teens, that education will provide the foundation for understanding the rules in place. It is common for teens to develop an off-set circadian rhythm and experience changes in sleep patterns.