10 tips for parents who want a relaxing bedtime and better sleep
Our resident sleep expert gives us her top science-backed tips for helping the whole family get the best possible night’s sleep.
You may have received multiple tips to help make bedtime a more positive experience or to improve sleep for you and your child. Some tips that have a scientific basis or have been supported by literature are outlined here. Of course, every family is unique and you will have to decide whether or not a tip is helpful for you.
Think about your diet
Lots of food is lauded as soporific – from warm milk to tart cherries. There is some logic to some of these suggestions, as certain foods naturally contain substances that give our bodies a cue that it is time to fall asleep, such as melatonin (the ‘darkness hormone’).
It is currently unclear whether eating these foods can have a noteworthy impact on our sleep. Instead, the focus of our diet should be on what to avoid. Caffeine is a key example and can affect our sleep for prolonged periods after it is consumed. While it is unlikely that children will be drinking coffee, remember that caffeine is contained in multiple other foods such as cola and chocolate too – so these should also be avoided.
Our core body temperature naturally drops before bedtime and a comfortably cool environment is conducive for good sleep. This may seem at odds with a desire for a warm bath before bed, but it is not.
When we have a pleasantly warm bath, the blood vessels in our skin dilate which means that blood moves to the surface of our skin. When we leave the bath, the cool air lowers our blood temperature and we lose heat.
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Dim the lights
When it gets dark, our bodies release the ‘darkness hormone’ melatonin. This gives our bodies a cue that it is time to go to sleep. Bright light can disrupt this process, so can potentially hamper a natural descent into sleep.
Therefore, when you start to think about putting your child to bed, reduce light as much as you can by using blinds and curtains, dimming the light and avoiding electronic devices that emit light.
Remember the basic rules of shaping behaviour
A basic rule of shaping behaviour is to reinforce that which we like. We need to make sure that we do not accidentally reinforce behaviours which we do not appreciate.
For example, if you would prefer your child to stay in bed at night – perhaps use a sticker chart to reward each night they do so. If your child gets up during the night without a good reason, don’t reward this behaviour by allowing them play or have fun with those who are still awake.
Our physiological processes are controlled by ‘clocks’ within our bodies. For example, our body temperature, melatonin secretion and alertness levels naturally change throughout the day and night. This means that at certain times of day we are more prepared for sleep than at others.
If we keep our bedtime and wake time consistent, we help our body know when sleep is coming and to prepare accordingly.
Get and early night…
Certain guidelines suggest that most children aged between 3 and 5 years should get between 10 and 13 hours of sleep per 24 hours, whereas those aged between 6 and 13 should get between 9 and 11 hours.
Many children do not get enough sleep, which can cause problems during the day. A good way to ensure that your child gets the sleep required is to get an early night. Wake time is often fixed (we need to get up for work or school) and perhaps unsurprisingly, research has found that children who go to bed earlier get more sleep.
…But not too early!
We should only go to bed when we are tired. If that does not happen, we may lie in bed unable to sleep. This can escalate into a sleep problem if we then start to associate being in bed with feeling awake and stressed.
It can be confusing for parents to decide when their children are tired, as in contrast to most adults, children can sometimes behave in an excitable way when they are exhausted. You might want to try a given bedtime for a week or so in order to get the feel for whether that is just right for them, or whether they might need to go to bed earlier or later.
Don’t forget that sleep requirements change as children grow older, too.
A large proportion of children have electronics in their bedroom. These can include a whole range of devices from tablets to mobile phones. Such devices often emit ‘blue light’ which is particularly disruptive to our bodies’ ability to secrete the hormone melatonin – which means that our body may miss out on a cue to fall asleep.
A ‘night setting’ on these devices can often be activated, but even in these alternative modes, electronic devices can be exciting (they might emit noise for example) and can lead to arousal before bedtime. Ideally, turn off such devices many hours before bedtime and keep them out of the bedroom.
Read your Q&As about sleep:
- What happens in my body when I don't get enough sleep?
- Are our sleeping positions linked to our personalities?
- I wake up at 4am every morning and can’t get back to sleep. What can I do to fall asleep again?
Don’t let sleep be bad or sad
For adults, going to bed is often a treat. It would be wonderful if children felt the same – so we should try to avoid sleep becoming something bad or sad. For example, it’s not a good idea to tell your child that ‘they must go to bed’ if they do something wrong, or ‘they can stay up late’ as a reward for good behaviour. This reinforces the idea that being asleep is a punishment and being awake is a treat.
Try to avoid conflating sleep and death, too. Avoid telling your child that someone who has died is ‘at rest’ or ‘sleeping’ as this can make sleep a frightening experience.
Enjoy the tranquillity of the bedroom
Research suggests that people report better sleep in fresh sheets and that air quality is important for good quality sleep. Avoid stress at night too!
Although bedtime can be stressful, tension around this time can influence levels of the stress hormone cortisol and does not aid good sleep, so do all that you can to avoid it. Make your expectations about your child’s behaviour and sleep clear well before bedtime and by showing consistency in your approach over time.
However much you are challenged by your child, try to stay calm – making sure you do not raise your voice.
Alice is a Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths. She has contributed to several diverse research areas, including the longitudinal associations between sleep and psychopathology, behavioural genetics, sleep paralysis and exploding head syndrome. In addition to her scientific contributions she also excels in the public engagement of science. She has published two popular science book (Nodding Off, Bloomsbury, 2018 and Sleepy Pebble, Nobrow, 2019). She regularly contributes articles to the media and has had her work published in outlets including the Guardian, GQ UK, Sud Ouest, Slate Fr, Independent.