All parents have our share of sleepless nights. It goes with the territory. No one expects newborns to sleep through the night, so we’re prepared for having our sleep interrupted.
But what if the interruptions never seem to end? What if your child continues to have problems going to sleep and staying asleep all night into childhood? Will you still be dealing with bedtime hassles and having your kids get up again in the middle of the night until they go off to college? Of course not, but it can certainly feel that way at 4:00 in the morning when your little one is bounding into your bed, ready to play, and you need to go to work in 3 hours.
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Lots of parents share these same concerns. Let’s face it, kids need a lot of sleep, and it’s up to parents to help make sure they get what they need. A toddler needs 11-14 hours of sleep at night with one nap during the day. Your school-aged child needs 9-11 hours, and your teenager still needs a lot more sleep than they may think they need: at least 8-10 hours every night.
The problem is, how do we get them to go to sleep early enough to make sure they get the sleep they need, and then stay asleep until the alarm goes off in the morning?
There are two issues here: going to sleep, and staying asleep. Either one of them can wreak havoc on productivity the next day, but the combination is particularly challenging. And children on the autism spectrum tend to have more of both types of sleep problems than their neurotypical peers. One theory as to the reason for this has to do with melatonin. Most people naturally produce melatonin at night, but people with autism tend to have this mixed up – their bodies produce melatonin during the day rather than at night. They also tend to have heightened sensitivity to things around them, such as light levels, which can get in the way of settling down to sleep. So, what can a parent do?
Getting to sleep at night is one big problem for many parents, and there’s a reason for this. It turns out too much light, especially the “blue” light emitted from electronic screens such as phones, tablets, and television sets, can affect melatonin production. This can fool our bodies into thinking we’re not ready for sleep, no matter how tired we are. The National Sleep Foundation recommends turning off all electronic devices 2 hours before bedtime, or at the very least, 30 minutes before going to bed. You could try different amounts of time with your children to see what works best for them.
Waking during the night is another problem many parents share. This can be due to having a phone or other device charging in the same room. It may not seem like much light, but the type of light it creates while charging, called “blue” light even though it can show all colors, is just the kind that can trick the body into thinking it is time to wake up. Charge phones and devices in another room, not your child’s bedroom. (And not in your own bedroom if you have trouble sleeping)
So, how can you get your family on board with these changes? If they’re old enough to understand the science, try asking them to do an online search about the effects of screen time before bed, and see what they find. (Don’t do this within 2 hours of bedtime, of course.) This may also be a good time to address honest and ethical use of online searching; for example, your kids shouldn’t scroll past and ignore several articles showing that screen time is bad for sleep and focus only on the one that says it’s not so bad. (Don’t ignore the one you disagree with, either. Read and evaluate it all.) Enroll your kids in finding strategies that are conducive to good sleep hygiene, and let them find ideas to suggest that they think will work for them.
For younger children or those who are not yet ready to get involved in internet searches (and even for older teens) if you are reducing screen time, which is something you know they love, you will need to replace it with something else they love. Of course, if your kids are addicted to their screens, as many teens and tweens admit that they are, this won’t be easy. You’ll need to create a bedtime routine that does not include television, video games, or any electronic or digital device. Your routine might include turning off the TV set and playing a board game after dinner. Reading is another excellent replacement for screen time. Start a tradition of reading a book aloud as a family, perhaps taking turns reading a page, or having different people read the conversation of different characters in the book. Or, you might sit in your child’s bedroom and read a story out loud to them, even after they have learned to read for themselves. There is comfort in listening to the voice of a loving parent before drifting off to sleep. Playing an audio book in a darkened room is another idea, or restful music. Just be sure that the device you’re playing music on is not emitting the digitalized “blue” light of a phone or computer screen.
Many families allow children to earn extra screen time through chores or good behavior, and they may lose minutes of screen time for misbehavior. If this works for you and your kids, keep using the strategy, but make sure that they get to spend their earned minutes at another time, not bedtime. If you know this will be a hard sell, consider offering an extra minute or two as a bonus. Instead of earning 10 minutes a night, they can earn 12 or 15 minutes to be used right after school, or in the afternoon as soon as their homework is finished, or right before dinner. (If you have kids who often seek your attention while you are cooking, giving them their screen time during meal prep can be beneficial.)
However you do it, whatever works for your family, I believe that cutting out nighttime screen use will help solve the bedtime battles, and help your child get to sleep sooner and sleep through the night. Sweet dreams!