Tips for better sleep for young children

child awake

Sleep is important for children. Here’s how much sleep a child needs, according to the NHS. In other countries the suggested hours vary, though.

A relaxing routine.

We all know that a bedtime routine (eg bath, story, bed) is important. Children need to relax before bedtime. For older children, this could be reading a book, listening to gentle music or practising breathing for relaxation.  If they think breathing exercises are silly or boring, include them in a story (see the section below on bedtime stories).

It’s hard, but try to get rid of the gadgets from the bedroom! Phones can be charged outside the bedroom — or at the very least, put in Do Not Disturb mode. If your child tries to tell you they need their phone to wake them up in the morning, buy them an alarm clock.

If they aren’t old enough to tell the time, there are special clocks that changes colour at the appropriate sleep and wake times. Reward them for waiting until the appointed hour. You can use a sticker chart and reward seven consecutive nights with a special treat. But keep it positive.

Thick curtains or blackout blinds help to keep the light out in the summer. Double glazing helps to block outside noise (or earplugs for your child).

Make sleep a priority – not only for the children, but also for yourselves. They’ll pay attention to what you do (more than what you say….)

Up to about the age of four, it’s normal to have to teach your children to sleep. This means taking them back to bed when they get up at the wrong time and helping to soothe their anxiety after bad dreams. And in the end, don’t despair. It’s just a phase, and you’ll all make it through.

Overcoming Bedtime Worry

Some ideas to get anxious thoughts out of their heads are:

Create a regular time during the day when you’ll chat about worries and how to cope. Then those will be less important at bedtime.

Get them to write their worries down, along with some good things that happened that day. Focusing on the positive will help children feel more secure.

Do a mindfulness exercise with your child. This could be a simple breathing exercise.

Don’t give in to all the demands

It’s normal for them to wake up and ask for a parent. Of course reassure them, but this isn’t the time to give in to demands. If you do, they’ll start waking up properly, and getting into a pattern of relying on parental help to fall back asleep. Instead, keep the visit to their bedroom short. Some parents wait a short while before answering a call so that their child has the opportunity to fall back asleep on their own.

Keep older children’s naps early and short  

Most children stop napping at 3-4 years of age. If your child over five years is still napping during the day, try to keep the nap to shorter than 20 minutes at lunchtime. Longer and later naps can make it harder for children to get to sleep at night.

Make sure they feel safe at night
If your child feels scared about going to bed or being in the dark, you can praise and reward your child whenever they’re brave. Avoid scary content, dim the lights well in advance, and use a warm coloured night light rather than a blue or white one (which looks like dawn is coming…)

Move the clock
No, not move the hands to a different time (although I have heard about parents doing that).  If your child is checking the time often, encourage them to move the clock or watch to a spot where they can’t see it from bed.

A good evening meal at a reasonable time really helps. Feeling hungry or too full before bed can make them more alert or uncomfortable.

Exercise & natural light in the daytime
Getting lots of natural light during the day is a good thing!  Apparently bright light suppresses melatonin. This helps your child feel awake and alert during the day and sleepy towards bedtime.

Avoid caffeine
Caffeine is in energy drinks, coffee, tea, chocolate and cola. Encourage them to avoid these things in the late afternoon and evening, and don’t offer them at these times.

Bedtime stories

If they think a breathing exercise is boring, try to include it in a story you’ve made up. For example, a key part of one parent’s story is  (spoken slowly and calmly):  “A  human child is awake. A friendly alien comes to help the child sleep. She’s called Mumnum. She says “On my planet children love to sleep. Let me show you why. Close your eyes. We’ll go on a journey. This journey starts with listening to our breathing. Breath in…. Breath out…. (do it with them) Your breathing is slowing…. in… out… (and repeat, doing it yourself)..  your body is calm, so calm, you can feel your body resting. You can feel all your fingers.. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10 fingers. You can feel your legs, your feet, your back touching the very soft, soft dreamcloud that you are resting on. So soft, so safe. … Your dreamcloud is slowing lifting up, very slowly, very safely, up through the roof and above the house. The stars twinkle, it’s warm and soft in your dreamcloud., drifting slowly… (add extra parts, such as the animals that are falling asleep below).. drift over fields, etc and eventually back to your bed (see the original here by author Chloe Leland)

If you’re having trouble making stories up, there are  ideas for bedtime stories by Tom Burns.

I went through a series of stories I made up about ourselves with family friends, where the adults kept getting it wrong & doing daft things – like emptying a digger on to someones car. That always got a giggle!

Here’s more tips for making up your own bedtime stories: (adapted from here)

Make It Personal

Children love seeing themselves in a story. Name the main character after them and watch their eyes light up – and if they’ve got a favourite pet, or teddy bear, talk about them, too. Let them go on the adventure together.

Keep It Simple

There’s no need to make an epic. Short is good. Keep it simple by planning the setting first (A: forest, desert island, distant planet or mountains), the characters next (B: witch, wizard, fairy or pirate), and lastly, what the goal is (C: to find treasure, to rescue someone or to fight against evil). Throw your child into the mix as you go from A to B to C – et voilà: you have a story.

Believe In Yourself

Chances are, the main reason your child wants you to tell them a bedtime story in the first place is because they want to spend time with you. So you can pretty much say anything. You don’t need “lots of imagination”. They’ll probably help if you get stuck.  Plus you can always borrow from films or stories from your youth!

Do a Funny Voice

The worse you are, the funnier they’ll find it – so it’s OK if you can’t do impressions. So long as you remember to do the voice each time, you’ll be fine. Examples of voices are: The Queen, an evil Bond villan, a “posh” voice, an old man….etc

I’m a specialist children’s and family photographer based in Warwickshire, UK, and travelling internationally.