3 Most Common Mistakes: Bedtime

What are the three most common bedtime mistakes?

Expert: Dr. Carol Ash, Medical Director of Sleep for Life.

1. Thinking eight is enough

Right out of the gate, most parents do not recognize that their children need more sleep than they really realize. Adults, the range is seven to nine, and on average we need about eight, but with young kids, the range of sleep they need can be as high as ten hours. In younger kids – toddlers – it can be as high as thirteen hours.

So if you’re keeping pace with your child, either you or your child has it right. If your child is sleeping ten hours and you’re sleeping ten hours, then there’s something wrong with you as the adult. You shouldn’t be sleeping that long, and you might have a sleep disorder. No matter how you slice it, as an adult, you should not be keeping pace with your child.

Children with sleep debt have symptoms not typical of what you would expect: When an adult doesn’t have enough sleep, they’re tired during the day. When kids don’t have enough sleep, they can’t focus, they can’t concentrate, they’re very impulsive, and they tend not to do as well in school. And typically when a kid presents with that constellation or that collection of symptoms, we call that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. And Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a diagnosis of exclusion, so the concern I have is there is probably quite a number of children that are being misdiagnosed with ADHD who in fact have either poor sleep habits, or they have an unrecognized sleep disorder.

2. Rocking or singing your kid to sleep

You think that to be a good parent, you have to rock them to sleep, or you have to be the one to come to their attention and be there for their needs and soothe them. And what parents do without even realizing it, is that the child learns that’s what they need to fall asleep. So if you rock your child to sleep at night, well then, when your child – we all wake up, it’s normal to wake up, we all wake up at night, they’re usually so brief that we don’t recall them in the morning – but if your child has an arousal from sleep at night, and they’re used to Mommy or Daddy soothing them to sleep, that’s what they’ve learned they need to fall back asleep again. They’re not going to be able to fall asleep. The child is never learning how to self-soothe.

You just really want to put them down, give them a kiss goodnight, and you don’t really want to maintain that presence in the bedroom, because you’ll have to get up in the middle of the night and be there. If the child has learned that’s what they need to fall asleep, you’re going to have several difficult nights while the child is almost crying themselves to sleep, but they’ll eventually learn, they’ll eventually – it sounds horrible – but they will eventually exhaust themselves, and they will eventually fall asleep.

What we’ll teach parents to do is slowly remove themselves from the situation. So at first you might put a chair in the room, at the side of the child’s bed, and then the next night move it a couple feet further away. And eventually move it out of the room, and when the child calls out, you say, “Mommy’s here, Daddy’s here, it’s okay, I still love you, you’re still safe,” and eventually they will learn that they can fall asleep on their own.

3. Putting a basketball court in the bedroom

At bedtime, the brain is looking to transition to a safe, comfortable environment. Nowadays it’s kind of in vogue to create all kinds of unique environments in the bedroom. I’ve seen, you know, basketball court environments, Las-Vegas-strip-looking bedrooms, and really you want calm colors, a relaxing environment. You want to remove electronics from the bedroom.

The thing is, we’re living in a time where technology allows us to turn night into day – the rest of the creatures on the planet adhere to the normal light/dark cycle. As far as our brain is concerned, electricity with light bulbs has created an artificial environment that sends confusing signals to the brain. So at night time, you’ve got your kid up watching TV, playing on the Blackberry right up until they’re ready to go to bed at night, then it’s really going to interfere with their brain’s ability to recognize where it is in the twenty-four-hour day and get to bed on time.

Parents may be trying to create a playroom with a dual purpose, but at the end of the day the kids can still play in a room with subdued colors. So when you think of any of these various relaxing Zen environments – literally, that’s what we’re trying to create in our bedroom. Sometimes parents are like, “Well, I’m taking the TV away. What do you use as an alternative to keep them engaged in bed?” You get some glow-in-the-dark stars or something.

Interview by Meghan Pleticha

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