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Stick to a Sleep Schedule

Does your child resist going to bed, or insist that they’re not tired at bedtime? Do they wake you up during the night because they can’t fall asleep? 

Keeping children and youth to a regular sleep schedule (bedtimes and wake times) can help.

When your child goes to bed around the same time every night, even during weekends and holidays, they’re more likely to fall asleep and wake up naturally. To keep your child’s biological clock in harmony, make sure even weekend or holiday wakeups stay within an hour or so of the usual time.

Trying to “catch-up” on sleep over the weekend only disrupts the natural sleep-wake cycle. For example, if your child or youth sleeps in too late on Sunday, they may not feel sleepy by Sunday night. By Monday morning, they can wake up feeling tired, irritable, and lose focus at school.  

A regular sleep schedule not only tends to increase the amount of sleep we get each night, but may also improve the quality of that sleep.

When your child isn’t sleeping well, making even small shifts to the family sleep schedule can help.

Make small shifts to improve sleep schedules

Take a look at your child’s sleep schedules (bedtime and wake time) and consider whether your child is getting enough sleep. 

Since making big shifts to sleep schedules can be difficult for the body to adjust, and is often hard on the whole family, start with small changes first.

Here are some small shifts you can try to improve your child’s sleep schedule:

  • Set a bedtime that’s early enough: Too little sleep is a common problem for many children and youth. Figure out how many hours of sleep are recommended based on your child’s age. Count back the number of hours your child needs to sleep, starting from their wake-up time.
  • Gradually work toward desired bedtime: Try putting your child to bed 15 minutes earlier every night (or over a few nights) until the target bedtime is reached. If you move the bedtime too quickly, they may have problems with falling asleep. You can start with getting weekdays on track, then move to weekends. 
  • Focus on wake-times: Mention the word bedtime and you’ll probably hear groans from children of any age. It’s usually easier to get children out of bed than it is to get them to fall asleep. So rather than have them go to bed earlier, focus on waking them up earlier in the morning. This should make them feel sleepier earlier in the evening and eventually help to ‘reset’ their sleep schedule. Especially when there has been a disruption to their sleep schedule, this can be a helpful strategy.
  • Plan ahead for earlier wake times: When your child needs to get up earlier again when the school year starts, or after Christmas break, it’s best to prepare the whole family in advance. Try to re-establish bedtime routines a couple of weeks ahead of time. When is your child waking up? When do they need to wake up for school? Move bedtime/wake time earlier by 15-30 minutes each night, so the shift to an earlier bedtime is gradual. Remember to try to keep your child’s wake-up time the same every day, including on weekends, so their bodies get into a natural sleep-wake rhythm.
  • Problem-solve a wake-up routine with your teen: It can be tough to convince a teen to get out of their warm, cozy bed in the morning. Rather than deal with daily conflicts, try talking over a wake-up routine that might work best for them. Maybe they prefer to wake up to their favourite music? Or they can try putting the alarm clock across the room so they have to get up to turn it off. You can even offer to be their first wake-up call, and then make them responsible for getting up on time afterward. The idea is to have your teen become solely responsible for getting up on time.
  • Use daily routines to shape sleep schedules: Keeping to a regular daytime schedule, such as having your child eat breakfast or dinner around the same time every day, helps keep the whole family on track. And once a daily routine is established, including on weekends, you can “cue” changes to the evening routine with small adjustments. For example, cue an earlier bedtime routine by eating dinner a bit earlier.

Tips for avoiding common bedtime battles

  • Decide on a bedtime and stick to it: Some families find it helpful to have children of different ages go to bed at slightly different times. Others find that a standard family bedtime improves the sleep dynamics for all. See what works for your family. Just be sure to keep to the agreed bedtimes as much as possible, seven days a week. And make a habit of slowing down and reconnecting together before bedtime. 
  • Pay attention to napping: If your child isn’t tired at bedtime, try scaling back on daytime naps. Although nap needs vary by child, make sure your child doesn’t nap too long, or too close to bedtime. Napping can disrupt your body’s natural sleep cycle and make it much harder to sleep at night. For older children and teens, it is best to avoid naps during the day, but if they insist on a nap, limit it to 20-30 minutes.
  • Be firm with sleep schedules: If you consistently set limits, children will be less likely to protest or delay at bedtime or sleeping in. Choose at least one sleep schedule that you don’t bend the rules on – either sleep time, or wake time.
  • Communicate the benefits of getting a good night’s sleep: Rather than tell children and teens that they have to go to bed – explain why sleep will benefit them. For example, remind a child eager to perform well on an upcoming test that it’s better getting enough sleep the night before, rather than stay up all night studying, so they’ll be sharper and more focused. Or, how keeping to a regular sleep schedule may help them do better at school or sports, and keep their stress down.
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