May is Mental Health Awareness Month and Dr. Sarah Cohen, child psychiatrist in the behavioral health department at Westmed Medical Group, wants parents and caregivers to understand the importance of good sleep and how it supports good behavior and mental health in children.
The end of the school year is near, which means the days are getting longer and children do not want to sleep while the sun is still out! Everybody wants to have more fun in the summer and parents are inclined to let children play just a little longer.
In the summer, sleep habits often regress and your child can end up overtired. Proper sleep, diet and exercise all help children to be more successful. For children, sleep is critically important to helping them focus, learn, balance mood, maintain energy, sharpen reflexes and more.
May and June are a great time to focus on healthy sleep hygiene before the fun and craziness of summer starts. Here are some starting points to ensure proper sleep habits for your kids:
- Aim for the appropriate amount of sleep for your child’s age (see chart). There is a good chance that your kids need more sleep than they are getting. Common signs of sleep-deprivation include difficulty waking your child in the mornings and noticing your child is frequently falling asleep in the car. A well-rested brain will awaken at the same time every morning, ideally before the alarm even goes off.
- Establish and comply with a formal bedtime routine. Parents and children should know exactly when they are expected to be in bed, when the lights must be off, and when they should actually be asleep. For example, if a 9 year-old has to get up at 7am and generally functions best with 10 hours of sleep, then he should be in bed at 8:15pm, lights out at 8:45pm and asleep by 9pm. I recommend that non-school nights should not deviate more than 30 minutes from this routine.
- Make time for winding down before bed. Allow 60 minutes of soothing activities before lights out to help your child fall asleep at the proper time. Turn off ALL screens. Play a non-electronic game, listen to music, draw, chat or snuggle with family members. Do a guided relaxation or body scan with your family using a meditation app. Try non-caffeinated bedtime teas or hot milk, or have your child take a warm bath with lavender or Epsom salts. Reading in bed with a dim light is also a helpful addition to your child’s bedtime routine to help them fall asleep faster.
- Set up your child’s room for sleep success. Ideal sleeping environments are quiet, dark and cool. Limit distractions (i.e. toys away). Nightlights are okay. Screens should be off. Sound machines can be helpful if the house is still noisy at bedtime. For those long summer days when it’s still sunny out after 7:00 pm, it’s wise to invest in some black out curtains for your child’s bedroom. A homemade “Monster Spray” also works like magic if they are spooked by the closet.Simply fill a spray bottle with water, label it ‘Monsters Be Gone’ and encourage your child to spray inside the closet or under the bed to keep those monsters away!
If your child still struggles to fall asleep on time despite sticking to all of the above, check in with your pediatrician. They can help you with more strategies to enhance sleep and discuss whether your child needs an evaluation with Child Psychiatrist or Sleep Specialist.