6 Ways to Help Your Kids Get More Sleep

Got a night owl on your hands? Here's how to help her get the sleep she needs

Illustration by Deana Halsall

Pregnant and daydreaming about what life would be like after my baby, I had some vague idea that I’d be sleepless for a while. Little did I know that eight years later I’d still be shushing my eldest child to sleep at 11 p.m. I never imagined the near-nightly battles between my eternally wakeful child and me.

Charlotte is a night owl and, as a result, is never sleepy when bedtime rolls around. She inevitably creeps downstairs a couple of hours after we put her to bed, whether she just has to tell us something or only needs a glass of water. I suppose if I were a night owl too, it wouldn’t be an issue, but I am a morning lark, ready for bed at 9:30 p.m. and raring to go at the crack of dawn. Charlotte, on the other hand, is an absolute grump until about 9:30 a.m.

Slow to Snooze
Night owls, says Edmonton sleep expert Dr. Manisha Witmans, had an important role in humanity’s early years, when they were assigned night-watch duty while everyone else slept. Now, with our 24-7 society, it’s relatively easy for them to exist in a different time zone than the rest of us, she says. Not surprisingly, this is not ideal for school-aged children who may be getting less sleep than they need—about 10 hours each night, according to the Canadian Sleep Society.

West Vancouver, B.C., mom Sofia Kennedy and her son, Miguel, 9, are both night owls, but school starts at the same time every day for him—sleepy or not. “It’s funny,” says Kennedy. “I remember thinking when he was younger that I’d rather sleep in, so I let him stay up late too.” But when she tried to roll back Miguel’s bedtime to accommodate the earlier mornings that go along with starting school, she quickly realized her choice had little to do with when her son felt sleepy, which is around 10 p.m. “Mornings are tougher on him,” admits Kennedy.

Sleep experts call this tendency delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS)—when sleep and wake times are delayed by more than two hours based on what is considered normal. Have a night owl? If your little one’s sleep is routinely delayed, chances are the daily insomnia caused by DSPS affects her next-day function.

Here are six tips from experts about how you can help your child embrace an early-bird lifestyle.

  • Make the bedroom a soothing, quiet place. The Sleep Doula, Tracey Ruiz, says she strips kids’ bedrooms of toys before implementing a new nighttime routine so they’re free from distraction.
  • Avoid full-spectrum light in the evening. Put lights on a dimmer or use softly lit table lamps and discourage computer use near bedtime to help kids feel sleepy, says Dr. Witmans.
  • Set limits. Ruiz encourages parents to follow through with promises to shut the door or turn off the lights at bedtime. Once your child knows you’re not going to engage her, she’s less likely to start the bargaining to stay up later with “Just one more hug, Mommy!”
  • Advance your child’s bedtime. f she is hitting the sack at 9:30 p.m., move her bedtime to 9:15 p.m. for several days. Keep advancing it further if she is able to go to sleep relatively quickly.
  • Keep late nights to a minimum. A child who plays hockey until 8 p.m. may not be ready to fall asleep a half hour later. Your child’s body may be tired, but her mind may still be racing, says Ruiz. Also, says Dr. Witmans, sleep onset is facilitated by a decrease in temperature, which does not happen after excessive physical activity.
  • Don’t let her sleep in too much on weekends. It might be nice to have everyone enjoy a sleep in, but this is akin to shooting yourself in the foot. Dr. Witmans recommends a consistent sleep schedule with limited sleep variances between weekdays and weekends. “If you let your child sleep in until noon, she will not be ready for bed at 8 p.m.”
For more tips on getting some rest, check out these 9 ways to help your family get more sleep.
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