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Q&A - My Child Can't Fall Asleep

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Question

My 8-year old has a hard time going to sleep at night and then he's impossible to wake up in the morning. This causes a lot of stress at night and trying to get to school in the mornings. How do I get him to sleep earlier? I'm worried that it's affecting his school work and health.

Answer

Back to school is a great time to make family lifestyle changes that include more sleep for everyone. You're correct to worry that lack of sleep may affect your child's ability to learn and grow. Millions of kids and their parents don't get enough sleep, with negative effects on memory, learning, physical growth, and psychological functioning.

While some individual differences do exist, an eight-year old should sleep at least 10 hours per night. At about age ten, 9 hours of sleep is recommended. To determine an appropriate bedtime, look at your morning schedule and subtract 10 hours from your child's wake-up time. I know, 8 or 9 o'clock may seem impossible, but you can get there. Here are some tips.

Make sleep a family priority. It will be hard for him to wind down if there is a lot of adult activity going on late. Adjust your family routine to lower the lights and start everyone's bedtime preparations earlier. You'll probably find that you function better with a bit earlier bedtime also!

Enlist his help. Help him understand the importance of ten hours of sleep to grow a healthy mind and body. Make it a cooperative family effort. [See the Sleep for Kids web site for kids from National Sleep Foundation.]

Make the change gradually. For example, two weeks before school starts, change bedtime to 1 hour later than school night bedtime; then, after a week change it to 30 minutes later then school night bedtime. The night before first day of school, begin the regular school night bedtime. This might not go perfectly, but it establishes your expectation and routine.

Make environmental changes.

  • Eliminate caffeine in your child's diet.
  • Reset the body clock with lots of outdoor exercise early in the day. Most schools have morning recess and this helps the sleep cycle.
  • Serve a high-glycemic carb snack after school. (An Australian study found that high-glycemic rice four hours before bedtime helped bring on quicker sleep onset.) Serve a light dinner early in the evening. Use this as a built-in perk - he gets to eat dessert first when he's on an earlier bedtime!
  • Turn down the thermostat; a cool room helps us sleep better.
  • Turn down the lights. Reducing exposure to light in the evening helps the body's natural sleep clock.
  • Restrict nighttime TV. If your family has favorite evening TV programs, watch together in the family room with the lights turned down low. Make a habit of turning the TV off when you can and avoid having a TV in the child's room. Also, don't let your child get on the computer before bedtime. The stimulation will delay his feeling of sleepiness.
  • To deal with the morning stress, move some morning tasks to evening. At the very least, make it a routine to lay out his clothes for the next day before bedtime.
  • Tuck him in. Spend time in quiet conversation while he's settling in to sleep. Read a story and just let him talk about what is on his mind. This quiet time with you will give him a chance to talk about things he might be ruminating on and quiet his thoughts for sleep.

Get accurate diagnoses of physical or psychological disorders. Problems with the sleep-wake cycle may be related to a disorder such as ADHD or a Mood Disorder. Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder may have a genetic component in a family of 'night owls.' If your child continues to struggle with falling asleep after you make environmental changes, you should bring this to the attention of his pediatrician, and possibly consider seeing a specialist in childhood sleep disorders. Medication may be needed to help him get the sleep he needs.

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