Ask an expert: Sweet dreams for little ones

Q: Our kids do best when they have a regular sleep routine, but so many things can throw that off, especially during the holidays. What’s your advice to keep them on track so we all can enjoy the season?

This time of year, the vision of children “nestled all snug in their beds” – never mind the sugarplums dancing in their heads – may seem like an impossible dream. Visits and visitors, events and festivities, overexcitement and general chaos conspire to throw everyone’s usual sleep patterns out of whack. Still, it’s important at least to try for some consistency, because lack of sleep is a sure way to sap the sparkle out of the season – for kids, and for you, too.

Kids don’t respond to lack of sleep the same way that adults do. They don’t realize that they’re tired. The effects of a night of poor or insufficient sleep show up in their behavior the next day: They may act out, have trouble concentrating and paying attention, or seem restless, out of sorts or even depressed. If their sleep suffers on a regular basis, it can affect more than their behavior – it can affect their mental and physical health, their development and their ability to do well in school.

In general, the younger children are the more sleep they require. Between ages 5 and 10, they may need as much as 10 to 12 hours of sleep per night. But we often underestimate how important sleep is as they get older. Even at 15, 16 or 17, they still may need 9 to 10 hours of sleep for their bodies and brains to function at their best. Since every child is different, there are no firm rules – you probably know how much sleep it takes for your kids to be the best version of themselves, and that’s what you should strive for most of the time.

Here are seven tips to help kids get the sleep they need through the holiday season and beyond:

  1. Don’t let them sleep the day away. A consistent sleep schedule is the key to good sleep for kids. However, despite your best efforts, a few late nights are bound to happen over the holidays. It’s tempting to let kids make up for lost sleep in the morning, but letting them sleep in will only throw their normal routine further off and make it harder for them to get back on track. Instead, after a late night, resist their grumbles and wake up your kids at their usual time. It will be that much easier to return them to their regular bedtime the next night, and by the following day, they’ll be back on schedule.
  2. Nix the naps after age 5. While napping is important for little ones, after about age 5 it can disrupt normal sleep patterns. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends against daytime napping for kids 5 and older.
  3. Watch what and when they eat. Just as we relax our usual sleep routines during the holidays, we also tend to fudge on our normal eating patterns, which can affect sleep, too. For optimal sleep, children shouldn’t go to bed hungry and they shouldn’t go to bed stuffed. Holiday treats are OK in moderation, but don’t encourage eating right before bed. If there are certain foods or drinks that you know amp up your child’s energy level, keep those, especially, out of reach as bedtime approaches. But if the kids had an early dinner at grandma’s house, do offer them a small, healthy snack a couple of hours before bed to make sure they don’t wake up hungry in the middle of the night.
  4. Keep an eye on caffeine. Caffeine can keep even the best sleepers awake at night, and it can hide in some unexpected places. Holiday chocolates, mocha-flavored sweets, sodas and energy drinks – even some cold medicines can deliver an unexpected caffeine buzz. Read labels and try to minimize the caffeine your kids consume.
  5. Give them the runaround. Both kids and adults sleep better when we’ve had some physical activity during the day. Kids need at least an hour a day of running around for good health, whether it’s jumping rope, shooting hoops, playing tag, walking, skipping, swimming or playing a team sport. If it’s too cold or dark for outdoor play, find things they can do indoors, like dancing to music videos, jumping on a mini trampoline, going with you to the gym or joining an indoor club sport. Just make sure that they wind down the activity level by dinnertime so they don’t go to bed wired.
  6. Power down before bedtime. Several recent studies have shown that TVs, computers and cell phones cut into both the quantity and the quality of sleep. Part of the problem is simply that screen time creeps into sleep time. But studies show that the screens themselves contribute to problems by emitting light that disrupts normal sleep cycles. Make sleep the priority: Limit TVs and other devices before bedtime, and eliminate them entirely from the bedroom. When it’s time to sleep, it’s time to sleep.
  7. Establish a wind-down routine. If you already have a bedtime routine, such as reading together before lights-out, try your best to stick with that through the holidays. If not, try to establish one. Research shows that children benefit from a calming routine that signals their bodies and brains when it’s time to get ready for sleep. Routines such as shutting off TVs and computers, switching from overhead lights to lamplight, quieting the house, brushing teeth and changing into pajamas all provide cues that it’s time to wind down and prepare for sleep.

I can’t discuss sleep without emphasizing that infants younger than 12 months of age should sleep on their backs, on a firm surface covered by a well-fitted sheet. They should not share a bed and should not have soft objects in their crib. This is not just a sleep quality issue – it’s a safety issue to reduce the risk of suffocation and sudden infant death syndrome.

As for the seven sleep tips I’ve offered, they’re not set in stone, but the medical literature does support them. If you notice your kids’ behavior going downhill over the holidays, take a closer look at their sleep patterns and talk to your child’s doctor if you have any concerns. Medical issues could be contributing to sleep problems as well.

When it comes to building good sleep habits, the structure and guidelines that you provide for your children will help set the precedent for their health habits as adults. It’s important for kids not just to understand the rules, but especially to understand the reasons behind them. A consistent bedtime doesn’t just matter “because I’m the parent and I said so” – it matters because it improves sleep, which makes your kids think better, do better in school and feel better overall. When kids recognize the positive benefits themselves, they move beyond following your rules – they become believers and adopt them as their own. That will serve them well, not just through the chaotic holidays, but along the entire journey to adulthood.