When it comes to sleep training kids, there are plenty of recommendations that can be given to make night time sleep go smoother. These guidelines can also be tailored to the child based on their age, health, milestones reached, etc.
However, there are some basic recommendations that can help any child fall asleep easier. These recommendations can also help adults get those ideal 8 hours a night that we all hope for! Here are my 5 recommendations for a smoother bedtime:
1) Cut screen time: Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated their recommendations regarding screen time and the limiting of digital media. Although it is not mentioned by the AAP, the blue light from phones, tablets, and TV screens is detrimental when it comes to sleep. This blue light emission suppresses melatonin production, which is a hormone that is released in order to help you fall asleep. My recommendation is to cut screen time at least 1 hour before bed and these devices should never be used when falling asleep. For children 18 months or younger, the AAP discourages the use of screen media entirely.
2) Check what you are eating and drinking: For kids, it's important to avoid giving foods high in sugar and salt before bed time. The spike in blood sugar can delay sleep time and cause hyperactivity. Salt can contribute to water retention, and this specifically might increase night-time wake ups to use the bathroom. I would recommend that if your child needs to eat something before bed, try giving healthy carbohydrates like a piece of fruit, or rice cakes/crackers. Try not to give protein, as this can give the body an extra boost of energy that inhibits sleep. For adults, you also want to avoid foods and beverages that can keep you up. Caffeine can stay in your system anywhere from 8-14 hours! Also, although some alcohol may help you fall asleep, too much can inhibit the natural flow of your sleep cycle.
3) Routine: I love routine, don't you? Kids love routine. Everyone loves routine. Humans do not do so great when things are changed unexpectedly. When helping parents to sleep train their children, one of the first things you teach is the importance of a bedtime routine. This should be followed the same each day and ideally the same time everyday. This actually works as a cue for the brain to start "shut down mode". For me, I know it's difficult for me to get to sleep if I haven't had just a few minutes of reading after brushing my teeth, changing into my pajamas, etc. I try to follow this every night. This idea can be used with infants from day one and helps to teach great sleep habits for life. Whatever routine that is used for nighttime can also be used for nap times in younger children.
4) Make the ideal bedroom environment: If you are having difficulty sleeping, or if your child has a hard time staying asleep, I would first check and make sure that the bedroom is really as it should be for a perfect night's sleep. How much light is coming in from the hallway, or windows? Is it noisy? What's the temperature? The bedroom should be strongly associated with sleep only. So, if too much light is coming in from the windows, get blackout curtains or cover the windows. If your child needs a night light, it should not be too strong and emit a warm color light. For external noises, you might consider a white noise machine to help tune this out. And for the adults out there, please no TV in the bedroom okay? Refer to Point #1. Trust me, that episode of Game of Thrones can wait until tomorrow.
5) Consistency: This is really meant to "piggy back" Point #3, but I always love saving the best for last. In working with special needs kids, I have learned how important it is to make the child's world as black and white as possible. There cannot be any room for grey area. They need structure, routine, and parents must be consistent with this. Too much changing makes the child feel unsure of what is supposed to happen. When trying to do something like sleep training, if you are not consistent, it will feel like you are going back to square one over and over again when trying to teach good sleep habits. So, that means you need to be consistent in bed time each night, consistent in the routine you follow, consistent in not allowing unnecessary night time disruptions. Without this, kids (and adults for that matter) miss out on the important sleep time that their bodies need and deserve.
If you or your child has sleep problems, making some of these simple changes can help to make steps in the right direction for a full night's sleep. I cannot guarantee that this will help to change things overnight (again, we are creatures of habit and bad habits die hard). But, if these are implemented, you are well on your way to a better night's sleep for you and your family.