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A Pediatric Perspective

Sleep Time

Published October 10, 2013 9:37 AM by Wendy Spoor-Hof

"There was never a child so lovely but his mother was glad to get him to sleep." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I love this time of the year. The cooler evenings always seem to help me sleep better. There is nothing quite like that feeling of climbing into bed, pulling the covers up, and laying my head on my nice soft pillow. Not long after you'll find me fast asleep. 

Unfortunately this isn't always as easy for the some of the children I work with. Sometimes the trouble is due to sensory challenges and other times it is due to having poor sleeping routines. Whatever may be the cause it is so important for children to get at least one nap and a good night's sleep in order for the body and brain to develop properly. Today I'd like to share some strategies that might help if you have or know of a child that is having trouble sleeping.

One of the most important strategies any parent can use is that of having a good and consistent routine. The routine should be one that is quiet and calming. It's important to remember that what might work for one child may not always work for another child. For instance a bath may be calming and relaxing for some children but for others playing in the water and splashing around wakes them up. For some children reading a book and looking at the pictures will cause their eyes to start to close and yet for others the books get them excited and the pointing and turning pages has them excitedly awake wanting to look at another book. 

The best way to figure out what type of routine will work is to try switching things around until you find a routine that works. One may want to first try a warm bath with lavender bath bubbles (lavender is said to be a calming and relaxing smell), then read a book in bed, kisses/hugs, and lights out. Or try reading the book first together on a chair or sofa, then the tub, and then kisses/hugs and under the covers. In some cases I've had to suggest even moving the bath time or book reading to the morning because either of those activities can be too alerting to some children.

Other strategies that can help with sleep time are:

  • A weighted or heavier blanket can help a child feel "swaddled" without actually swaddling them. It is very important to make sure that the blanket is not too heavy. They should still be able to move around and turn without difficulty. My 14 year old son actually sleeps with 3 blankets and a thick open sleeping bag each night. When he was a toddler he would sleep with several blankets and several large stuffed animals on or next to him. If he didn't have this extra input he would wake up several times at night. Again the most important thing to remember is that the child must be able to move freely in their sleep and that there is nothing that could get in the way of their breathing.

  • Background music/noise - a CD playing classical music or lullabies quietly in the background can help sooth a child into sleep. Some children even like hearing "white noise" and there are actually CDs with white noise on them or you can even now purchase machines that produce white noise and yes, believe it or not there is even an App for that! Another option is a CD of the ocean. It's believed that the sound of waves can be very relaxing (though I think this may work for us adults better than for the kids.)
  • Turning off the TV and/or video games/computer - Research has shown that not only do kids with computers and TVs in their rooms go to bed later but that our brains take longer to stop thinking and processing if we have been watching the TV or using the computer, iPad, video games, etc. So turn off anything electrical at least one hour prior to bed to help our children's brains also prepare for sleep.

  • Clothing - be careful to watch what your child is wearing when they go to bed. Some children do not do well with nightgowns, basketball type shorts, or long PJ pants. These clothing items can be flowing and tangle or bunch around their legs as they move in their sleep causing them to feel uncomfortable and wake them up. For children with sensory needs the feeling of the cloth flowing around their legs/body can be discomforting and, again, cause them to wake up or not sleep as soundly as they might if their clothing was a little more snug fitting. These children need the tighter fitting, snug clothing options. And on the other hand you have the children who do not like anything snug and prefer the loose fitting clothing. Try different sleeping clothing and see which ones allow your child to sleep longer and with less waking during the night.

No two children are alike and the only way to know what will work for each child we work with is through trial and error. If one type of routine isn't working, try it a different way. If one type of clothing isn't working, try something different. If lullabies are keeping the child up as they sing along, change over to white noise or the sound of waves on the shoreline. Once you have been able to find a routine that works, stick to it as consistently as you can. A child who has a good bed time routine each and every night will be able to fall asleep quicker and easier than a child who has no routine and no strategies to help their bodies calm down and relax.

These are just a few strategies that may work. If you have some that you have found successful I would love to hear what they are. Next week we'll look at strategies to help children who may have trouble switching from their lighter summer clothing to their heavier winter clothing.


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