Need help establishing good sleep habits with your little ones?

According to the National Sleep Foundation, by age 2, children have spent more time sleeping than awake.  Throughout childhood, kids will spend about 40% of their time asleep. Developing good sleep habits is vital for a child’s mental and physical development.

Of course getting a child to bed — and getting her to stay there — can be difficult. And when kids don’t get enough sleep, they have a harder time controlling their emotions, and they may be irritable or hyper, which is no fun for anyone.

Kids who don’t have good sleep habits and are chronically sleep-deprived are more likely to have behavior problems, have difficulty paying attention and learning, and be overweight. So although it’s not easy, it’s important to do all you can to help your child establish good sleep habits.

Regular schedules and bedtime rituals greatly impact a child’s ability to get sound sleep and function at his best.

Establishing and maintaining good sleep habits helps your child fall asleep, stay asleep, and awake rested and refreshed.

Good sleep habits can also help take the stress out of bedtime.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for bedtime, and every child is different based on his or her temperament. What’s important is to develop a routine for good sleep habits that works for your family — and to stick with it.

The following suggestions will help you establish and maintain good sleep habits with your kids.

Good sleep habits make sleep a family priority.

Set regular go-to-bed and wake-up times for the entire family and be sure to follow them — even on weekends. You can tell that children are getting enough sleep when they fall asleep within 15 to 30 minutes of going to bed, wake up easily in the morning, and don’t fall asleep during the day.

Good sleep habits help you deal with sleep difficulties.

Signs of sleep struggles include difficulty falling asleep, nighttime awakenings, snoring, stalling and resisting going to bed, having trouble breathing during sleep, and loud or heavy breathing while sleeping. Sleep difficulties can be seen in daytime behavior as well. If your child seems overtired, sleepy, or cranky during the day, tell your child’s health care provider. Causes of sleep difficulties may be as simple as large tonsils and adenoids, which can be determined during a routine examination.

Good sleep habits allow you to work as a team.

It’s important to discuss and agree on a sleep strategy for your child with your spouse or partner beforehand and work together as a team to carry it out consistently. Otherwise, you can’t expect your child to learn or change her behavior. 

If you are starting a new sleep routine for your child, make her part of the team by explaining the new plan to her if she is old enough to understand. For a young child, try using a picture chart to help your child learn the new routine. Changing clothes, brushing teeth, and reading a book can easily be shown through pictures.

Good sleep habits include routine, routine, routine.

Kids love it, they thrive on it, and it works. In fact, a 2009 article in the journal Sleep found that a consistent nighttime routine improved sleep in children who had mild to moderate sleep problems.

good sleep habitsA nightly bedtime routine helps your child learn to be sleepy, just like reading in bed often puts adults to sleep. The structure of bedtime routines also associates the bedroom with good feelings and provides a sense of security and control. Routines can take the stress out of bedtime and help make it a special time. 

There is no one right routine for everyone, but in general, your routine should include all the things that your child needs to do before going to sleep, including brushing teeth, washing up, putting on PJs, and having a snack or drink of water.

Your child may want to be read to, talk about the day, or be told a story. Whatever you choose to do, keep the routine short (30 minutes or less, not including a bath) and be firm about ending it when it’s time to sleep.

Good sleep habits include bedtime snacks.

Children need more than three meals a day to keep them going, so a small snack before bedtime can help their bodies stay fueled through the night. Healthy options include whole-grain cereal with milk, graham crackers, or a piece of fruit. Avoid large snacks too close to bed, especially with older kids, because a full stomach can interfere with sleep.

Good sleep habits include dressing appropriately and room temperature.

Everyone sleeps better in a room that is cool, but not cold. For optimal comfort, a good rule of thumb is to dress your child basically as you dress yourself, keeping in mind that younger children often kick off the covers at night and are unable to cover themselves.

Good sleep habits create a sleep environment.

Make sure the bedroom is dark and quiet and the noise level in the house is low. If your child does not like a totally dark room, turn on a small night light, or leave the hall light on and the door to the bedroom open.

Good sleep habits allow a security object.

Bedtime means separation, and that can be made easier with a personal object, like a doll, teddy bear, blanket, or other comfort item. This kind of object can provide a sense of security and control that comforts and reassures your child before falling asleep.

Good sleep habits address the request for one last thing.

Kids will always ask for that one last thing — kisses, hugs, a drink of water, using the bathroom, just one more book. They can be quite inventive. Do your best to anticipate all this by incorporating these small rituals into the bedtime routine.

That way you can get it all done before putting your child to bed. And let your child know that once he is in bed, he has to stay in bed. 

If he gets up, don’t react — simply take him by the hand and walk him back to bed. If you argue or give in to requests, you are giving your child the extra attention — and delayed bedtime — he is seeking.

And don’t give into the “just this one time” pitfall. If you read one more story or let them stay up longer “just this time,” you risk that the bedtime routine you’ve worked so hard to establish will come undone.

Charlene H. Beard, MD, is an expert medical reviewer of content on WebMD FIT and Raising FIT Kids. She is a general pediatrician who has practiced in the Atlanta area since 1979.

Beard was in a private practice for 10 years before becoming a civilian pediatrician at Fort McPherson, Ga., and when it closed in 2011, she retired from the federal government. She now practices at an urgent care facility and does contract work for the Military Entrance Processing Station at Fort Gilliam.

Beard obtained her medical degree at the Medical College of Georgia and completed her internship and residency in pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. She is board-certified in pediatrics.