For almost a year now, the pandemic has eroded many families’ sleep routines. Bedtimes have crept later and later, kids have gotten in the habit of crawling into their parents’ beds, and sleep physicians report their offices (or telehealth slots) are filled with anxious children who can’t fall asleep.
All of this falls hard on parents who get precious few hours alone in the evening to take a breath. Or cram in work. Or both.
If bedtimes have come completely off the rails in your own home, here’s how to get back to some level of control.
Re-establish a routine that you stick to — every single night.
Early on in the pandemic, many rules and routines went out the window, and understandably so. But now, with the health crisis seemingly with us for many more months, sleep experts say the number one goal for struggling parents should be to re-establish a clear routine. (Or make one for the first time.)
“It’s never too late to introduce a routine or go back to a routine,” said Rachel Mitchell, a sleep consultant and owner of My Sweet Sleeper.
She added that many of her clients worry that their children are too old to make any meaningful changes — or that they’ve fallen into habits for too many months or years to go back now. But she believes parents really can work on their kids’ sleep at any point. “Children are resilient,” she emphasized.
A bedtime routine should take about 30 minutes or so, and it’s important to really wind down. For a baby, it might be a feeding, bath, and song. (The internet and baby books are bursting with options.) For a toddler, maybe a bath, a few minutes of quiet playtime, and a book. Again, whatever works.
But routines are also important for older children, experts say. Older kiddos can have some flexibility, but aim to keep it all “low-stimulating,” Mitchell said. It’s not a time for dance parties, loud play, screens or family arguments.
Whatever you choose, be really consistent.
“Do it the same way, every single night,” said Christine Stevens, a sleep consultant and owner of Sleep Solutions By Christine. Some kids will embrace a routine right away; others might take weeks (or more!) to get with it. Many of us are home every night now, so use disruption-free time to your advantage.
Turn off all screens at least one hour before bedtime.
Seven out of 10 parents say their kids’ screen time has increased during the pandemic — and truly, unstructured screen time is giving so many fried children and parents an absolutely essential break. But sleep experts say that it’s important that children stay away from screens for an hour (or two!) before bedtime.
That applies to babies, too, Mitchell said. They’re obviously not watching what’s on the screen, but they’re sensitive to blue light just like the rest of us. It suppresses melatonin, which is the hormone responsible for helping babies first establish circadian rhythms at around 12 weeks old or so.
And all of this is particularly important for tweens and teens, who are spending hours and hours every day on screens — sometimes falling asleep with their phones in their hands — but report they’re still feeling tired and disconnected. Even if they’re staying up late on screens because they’re doing homework, it’s important to prioritize sleep.
“Put a limit on the screen time one hour before bed,” urged Stevens. “That’s the time to cut them off.”
Take a hard look at how much time your kids are getting outdoors and being active.
There’s clear evidence that the pandemic has decreased how much kids are playing and moving their bodies throughout the day. Studies from the early months suggested that kids were sitting for up to eight hours a day. And while many kids are back in the classroom, others aren’t. Also, some activities like organized sports have been canceled.
All of which takes a toll on sleep and a child’s sleep drive. “Activity is key,” said Mitchell. “And make sure they’re getting outside in some capacity every single day.”
If you have a baby, try to make sure you’re getting them outside every day (it’s good for your mental health too!). If you’ve got a toddler, make sure you aim for them to have 30 minutes of outdoor physical activity every day at an absolute minimum, Mitchell advised. More is even better, she added. Toddlers are especially in need of a lot of mental, physical and social stimulation throughout the day.
Build in time to talk about what is happening in their lives throughout the day.
For months, children’s mental health experts have emphasized the need to be open with kids about what’s happening in a developmentally appropriate way. As the Child Mind Institute emphasizes in its guide to talking to kids about the pandemic, children worry more when they’re kept in the dark. It’s important to talk to them for many reasons, not least of which is the clear connection between anxiety and sleep problems.
Some kids, particularly older ones, sometimes have a tendency to open up right before bedtime, when you’re together and they’re feeling comfortable and emotionally open. Just be mindful of the impact that might have on bedtime.
“I would encourage conversations more throughout the day, rather than having them unload right before bed,” said Mitchell.
And if you are at all concerned that your child might be struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental health concerns, absolutely reach out to their pediatrician or a mental health professional.
Get really clear about what YOU need right now.
Families have really different expectations about sleep and bedtime. So do a gut check with yourself about how things are going. If bedtime is drawn out and your routines are all over the place, but it doesn’t bother you, great! Carry on!
But maybe you’ll recognize that sleep issues are adding to your stress as a parent.
“When it takes an hour or more for your child to fall asleep, or you find yourself dreading bedtime because you have no idea what’s going to happen, that’s when a lot of parents find themselves saying: ‘This is a turning point. I need to make a change,’” Stevens said.
That’s when you really owe it to yourself to try to set some clear boundaries around what you’re willing to put up with ― and what you’re simply not. And reach out for help if needed from your child’s pediatrician or even a sleep consultant.
Finally, be sure you and your child are getting enough sleep, Stevens stressed. She estimated that babies generally need up to 15 hours of sleep over 24 hours; toddlers generally need about 10 to 12 hours at night, plus a nap in many cases. And school-age kids should also be aiming for 9, 10 (or more!) hours at night.
“If you’ve decided to be more flexible with boundaries or the bedtime routine that is totally fine,” Stevens said. “Just ensure your child is still getting plenty of sleep.”