Starting back at school plays havoc with sleep. After a fun summer of choose-your-own-bedtime and zero responsibility, the sudden shift into “real life” is understandably a struggle for kids, and the stress and bewilderment can take a toll on bedtime.
“For most of us, summer is a time when bedtimes might slip later – the bedtime creep certainly happened in my house!” says Bonne Nuit Baby sleep consultant Leigh McMahon.
Leigh has seen both sides of sleep training: when her sons were infants, she used a sleep consultant herself. Now Owen, nine and George, five-and-a-half, are champion dozers, as you would expect! We asked Leigh to share a few easy, effective ways to kick those bad summer sleep habits, plus her picks of the best sleep apps for kids.
Sack-time Hacks: Here’s what to do if your child…
…wakes up during the night
Try: Adjusting bedtime
Night wakings are a sign of being overtired, often due to too-late bedtimes. A typical bedtime is anywhere between 6:30 and 7:30pm – by that point, kids have usually been up for at least 12 hours, their brains and bodies have been busy and they’re ready to power down. An early bedtime is like duct tape for sleep problems, in that it can solve a lot of them. Choose a few nights per week where you make an early bedtime a priority – 6:30 isn’t unheard of for four-to-six year olds, seriously!
…is a bedtime procrastinator
Try: The “Silent Return”
The Silent Return is our name for the super-boring, super-quiet method of turning kids around and putting them back in their bed. They’re not going to get another drink of water, they’re not going to get another tuck-in – nothing. Sometimes it takes a couple of nights of rinse and repeat, but you’ll start to break that habit by showing your kids that there’s no reason for them to be up, they’re not missing anything. I tell parents with very persistent older children to not even make eye contact with them!
…regularly climbs into your bed
Try: Talking it out
When making changes around sleep, for older kids especially, we suggest a “family meeting.” Pick a time when everybody’s well-rested and in a good mood. Explain to your kids that summer sleepovers were fun, but now that they have so much more going on, their body needs a lot of really good rest – and so does the whole family. It doesn’t have to be a long meeting! Make a couple of easy-to-follow rules, like, “Everybody sleeps in their own bed at night” and “We don’t wake other sleeping people in our house.”
If your older child has taken to sleeping with you or their siblings for comfort, the Parental Presence method is an effective way to get everybody back in their sleeping space. It’s a two-week process, where you stay with your child in their own bed until they fall asleep, then gradually physically move away every few nights. Contact is minimal and that’s really the key, especially with older kids: don’t engage, because if they see a tiny little opening, they will jump on it.
…takes forever to wake up
Try: Giving back control
To give kids some ownership of waking up without a lot of parental input, an OK to Wake! clock can help. You set it for whatever time you want it to light up (green means “get up”), and there’s an alarm function. Maybe let that go off first before you barge in and take the covers off!
…is surgically attached to screens
Try: Quiet activities together
Get a shoe box and add small, screen-free activities that you rotate each week: an easy puzzle, Legos, Tegu blocks, Magna-Tiles, a coloring or tracing book (which is very calming to the brain). If it’s possible, try to color with them and maybe do some blocks – this quiet time is when kids might start talking about their day, when Mom or Dad is just sitting there listening and not running in a million different directions. It’s a great opportunity for anxious children to talk about something that happened during the day that might prevent them from falling asleep.
Leigh’s Healthy Sleep Trifecta
Turn their bedroom into a cozy cave to encourage a full night of zzzzs.
An ideal sleep temperature is between 68 and 71 degrees Fahrenheit.
The more cave-like you can make the room, the better. There are a million different blackout curtain and shade options, but one I recommend to clients is the Amazon Basics blackout curtain.
Get a white noise machine! They help the brain power down and get into a restful state. “My favorite is the Marpac, which is used by the NICU. Send your kids to college with a white noise machine, they will thank you for it!” says Leigh. Yoga is another way to ease kids into sleep and calm down the nervous system before bed. Read a yoga storybook together or try a few poses with the lights down: child’s pose, legs up the wall, and happy baby.
The Right Night Light
You might be aware that your phone, TV and tablet all have blue light in them, which sends signals to your brain to stay awake. Well, your child’s night light might, too! According to Leigh, many night lights (say, from the grocery store) have blue light, stimulating kids’ brains when they’re trying to fall asleep. For younger children, she suggests the VAVA night light with a charging pad (great for nursing), and for older kids, the Gummygoods Night Light, which has a timer.
Best Bedtime Meditation Apps for Kids
- Stop, Breathe, Think For kids aged 5–10, it helps kids check their feelings and “create their own force field of calm” to aid peaceful sleep.
- Headspace does special mindfulness sessions for kids, aged from toddler up to 12.
- GoZen uses animated videos to guide kids with anxiety issues.
Leigh McMahon is a certified sleep consultant with Bonne Nuit Baby, based in Denver. She majored in Child Development and Psychology at Tufts University, and has been featured on websites such as Motherly and Lucie’s List. Follow Leigh’s #boymom and #dogmom adventures @leighwaldmcmahon!