The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

September 13, 2012

Sarah Coyne: Tactics can help kids sleep

By Sarah Coyne
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — There’s nothing as uniquely frustrating as a child who refuses to go to sleep.

Here we are, looking forward to the end of our parenting shift -- or at least a long, quiet halt to the little ones’ neediness -- when we’re thwarted by suddenly wired kids or an extra dozen bedtime requests. The prospect of that quiet halt recedes by maddening inches.

Our own relaxation is not the only thing that’s harmed by sleepless children. Later bedtimes can cause weaker attention spans, slower reflexes, more frequent temper tantrums and easier irritability.

Restful sleep boosts immune systems, cognitive brain functions, adaptability and positive moods, putting our children in line for better health and education.

Deep down, we all know the benefits of healthy sleep habits for our children and families, but there’s often a quagmire of confusion where real life intersects with recommendations. We see hyper children pushing buttons and testing limits, but usually fail to notice the underlying causes of that behavior.

Here are some common reasons for bedtime battles with kids, and what we can do to solve them:

Too tired to fall asleep: It seems counterintuitive that an extremely tired child will have trouble falling asleep, but it’s true for all of us.

The more time a tired brain spends being re-jolted into activity when it should be sleeping, the harder it is for that brain to finally shut down for the night. Overtired kids become wired and loopy with energy, just when we most want them to settle down.

To avoid the overtired state, simply aim for an earlier bedtime. Cut out unnecessary activities and late-night events in favor of an easy night. Remind yourself that kids need more sleep than adults.

Lack of transition: Kids aren’t born with the ability to manage transitions, whether it’s moving from loud time to quiet time or from play time to bedtime.

Moving an amped-up preschooler directly from a birthday party to bedtime requires a thoughtful transition, facilitated by parents. A simple bedtime routine accomplishes the task of getting a child’s body and mind in the right attitude for sleep.

Try a bath and pajamas followed by stories and snuggling.

Too much screen time: Bright lights are a big offender against kids being ready for sleep. The more light our bodies are exposed to, the more our brains become wired for wakefulness.

Thirty minutes to an hour before bedtime, dim the house lights and shut down the screens.

Emotional hostages: Even if we do everything right, there are still times when our kids will ask for one more drink and one more song and one more hug.

Instead of becoming fed up with their antics, step back and ask yourself what your child really needs, from an emotional standpoint. Maybe your preschooler is feeling left out from an older sibling’s exciting milestones, and wants some attention.

Spend five more minutes talking and snuggling, reassuring and laughing, and you might assuage the emotional issues that often stall bedtime.