What is the best bedtime for a child?
For many parents, their child’s bedtime is a sacred time of the day. It is the moment where freedom is restored and they are able to finally relax. It is the time they get to spend with their spouse, a good book, a show, or some other enjoyable activity. For other parents, their child’s bedtime is a time of frustration. It is the start of a never-ending routine of wrangling distraught children, catching sneaky ninja children trying to break free from their prison, listening to screams for “MOMMY!! or DADDY!!” and a host of other problems that prevent these parents from getting any respite. As a clinical child and family psychologist, I often have parents in my office desperately seeking a way to help their child get to bed at a reasonable time and in a reasonably happy way. The following are some techniques to help make your child’s bedtime as smooth and enjoyable as possible.
First, I would like to explain a little about the problems associated with poor bedtime habits. Children who do not have regular bedtimes tend to have more behavioral problems than children who have regular and consistent bedtimes. Having irregular bedtimes is linked to increased impulsivity, hyperactivity, conduct problems, poor peer relationships, and a greater likelihood of developing anxiety and depression later in life. Researchers at the University College London have discovered that problematic bedtimes can result in challenges with normal brain development and maturation. Conversely, children who develop good, regular bedtime routines tend to have better peer and parental relationships, improved frustration tolerance, and a greater level of compliance. What is encouraging is that children with irregular bedtimes often acquire the benefits that come along with good bedtime routines once they develop a good bedtime ritual.
To answer the question of ideal bedtimes for children, it depends on both the age of the child and family routines. How much sleep does a child need? The following chart tends to fit most children:
It is most effective to be consistent with your child’s bedtime. Choose a bedtime that allows for an adequate amount of sleep for your child’s age. For most children, bedtime is based on the time they need to get up to be ready for school. It is also important to take into consideration how long a child takes to fall asleep. It is also important to facilitate a good bedtime routine. The body produces a chemical called melatonin that helps to facilitate sleep. Creating a routine that makes the release of melatonin easier is vital. To illustrate how this works, I would like to talk about biological conditioning.
Researchers were examining the effects of using inhalers to help children with asthma breath easier. Albuterol inhalers were used to facilitate the expansion of bronchial tubes in the lungs making breathing easier during asthma attacks. Children would get much needed relief from these inhalers. Researchers then created a group of asthma inhaler users and gave them an inhaler that only dispensed the Albuterol medication every 5th time it was used. The result was eye-opening. The children’s biological response of expanding their bronchial tubes continued to happen whether the inhaler dispensed the medication or not. The findings of the research project showed that children became biologically conditioned to the process or routine of using the asthma inhaler. Just going through the steps of using the inhaler resulted in the biological response of expanded bronchial tubes.
This type of biological conditioning can also be used to promote the release of melatonin in the brain and induce sleep. The key is to create a process/routine that results in sleep. The most effective thing to do is to create a list of 5 or so steps, like the ones below:
It is important that these steps do not take more than 20 minutes to complete and are started at the same time each night and completed in the same order. It is also important that they result in sleep. The hardest part of this process is making sure the five steps end with sleep. Some children will complete the five steps and then not fall asleep. If it takes longer than 30 minutes for the child to fall asleep or if the child repeatedly gets out of bed, it is important to redo the steps. Eventually the routine will end with sleep. After this happens regularly for a week or so, the five steps can be completed at almost any time of the day and melatonin will be released and make falling asleep easier. This is a great place to get to. The result is quiet children and freedom for parents. Also, the child will get the benefits described before that come with a regular sleep routine.
Getting your child to follow a bedtime routine can be accomplished by using a reward system. Young children respond less to reasoning and more to limits, rewards, and deterrents. If you are trying to get a young child to follow a bedtime routine it can be very effective to include a reward. A basic principle of rewards is that whatever behavior precedes a reward is more likely to be repeated in the future. For example, a parent who praises and provides a small reward for teeth brushing will find that their child is much more willing to brush their teeth. In a different example, a parent who rewards their child with attention (either negative or positive) each time they yell out for them after bedtime, will have a child that yells for them more frequently. Targeted use of rewards to shape learning can be a very powerful tool to support the developing child; however, unchecked rewards that directly follow undesired behavior become equally as powerful, as they instill negative attributes and behaviors over time.
There are many types of ways to reward your child. Many parents have found that little treats are great for getting younger children to learn. While this works well, I often discourage giving out sweets every time a child succeeds. One solution is to create a simple token economy where a child gets praise and validation on the way to the reward. To the right is one example of a punch card token economy. The child gets a punch in a square when they follow directions the first time. It takes 20 times of following directions before they get their sweet, play a game with dad or some other simple reward. This reduces the cost and/or extra calories of always providing a direct reward. Each punch on the card works just as well as an immediate reward because the child knows that it leads to something prized. To maximize the effectiveness of the punch cards, I encourage parents to practice very frequent use of the card in the beginning to help the child understand that a punch on the card equals a reward for the child. In the beginning, practicing the card can be a game as you ask the child to follow silly directions. Each time it is punched the child should receive praise as well. Things like “grab the remote,” “spin in a circle,” “roar like a lion,” for example, are all directions that can be followed. Using these types of directions to burn through many punch cards for many rewards has the effect of raising the strength of compliance in following directions that are linked to the punch card. Once this conditioning has taken place, you can then use the punch card to reinforce each step in the bedtime routine. You can use the following link to download and print your own follow directions punch cards:
CLICK FOR PUNCH CARD LINK