Help your child get to sleep—naturally
Having trouble getting the kids down to sleep? More than just frustrating, problems falling and staying asleep can also affect your children’s health. Try these natural solutions if your family is experiencing the bedtime blues.
As autumn rolls in with cooler air and shorter days, those summer bedtimes that drifted later and later are coming face to face with the new reality: school, daycare, and work schedules demanding early wake-ups and earlier bedtimes. Now, at last, is the time to rein in your child’s wandering sleep schedule. Unfortunately—at least with my young son—putting kids to bed is easier said than done.
It’s hard to overstate how critical a good night’s sleep is to a child’s well-being. Inadequate sleep in children has been linked to a host of ills, including diabetes, hypertension, problems with the immune and cardiovascular systems, and obesity. It can lead to emotional disturbances and behavioural problems similar to those seen in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). To top it off, insufficient shut-eye can also impair a child’s learning and academic performance.
Even reducing sleep by one hour per night can affect your child’s cognition and ability to pay attention—this latter point coming as no surprise to any parent!
In short, adequate sleep is a vital part of your child’s healthy growth and development. It’s even been shown to improve children’s peer acceptance, social skills and engagement, and emotional intuition.
All of which is fine. But what if you still have trouble putting kids to bed?
In my household, for example, the call to bedtime also signals the arrival of My Son the Lawyer, an expert negotiator able to extract every scrap of available read-aloud time—that is, when he isn’t tossing all of his bedding onto the floor. Although charming (sometimes), this keeps him up later than is good for him. Fortunately, there are several natural and healthy strategies that can help smooth the way for better, more effective bedtimes.
As a naturopathic doctor at Juniper Family Health in Victoria, BC, Dr. Meghan van Drimmelen often hears from parents worried about their children’s inability to get to sleep. Her first recommendation is perhaps the most basic, but it’s also highly effective: “The first thing I ask is whether or not they have a nighttime ritual, a nighttime routine,” says van Drimmelen. “What does it look like when the parents are trying to get their kids to sleep?”
Although every family’s sleep routine will look different, van Drimmelen suggests giving your child a small, nutritious snack, having a warm bath, and reading a calming story. She also recommends zero screen time for at least an hour before bed.
What your children eat throughout the day—not just for a bedtime snack—can have a major impact on their nighttime sleep.
“Good protein and healthy fats with meals help to balance blood sugar, and by balancing blood sugar we’re going to be balancing cortisol, which is the stress hormone,” says van Drimmelen. “If stress hormones spike in the night, it’s hard for kids to sleep.”
To keep blood sugar and cortisol in balance during the sleeping hours, she suggests a whole foods diet with plenty of fresh fruits, green leafy vegetables, and lean proteins such as fish, poultry, beans, and legumes. Healthy fats from nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocados, and fish are also an important part of a sleep-friendly diet (or any diet), says van Drimmelen. She also advises limiting sugar, especially later in the day.
“Sugar’s very stimulating to the nervous system. If children are eating sugary foods or any beverages that have caffeine, it’ll be harder for them to calm down and relax in the evening.”
Being a child can be stressful, especially with the kinds of changes that happen at this time of year. Unfortunately, all that stress and anxiety can have a lasting effect. “It can impact a child’s ability to fall asleep,” says van Drimmelen.
In her practice, van Drimmelen encourages parents to have active, open communication with their kids about anything that might be bothering them. She also recommends that children get plenty of exercise to help manage their stress. “Exercising in the morning or afternoon, not later at night, is really, really important to balance out different hormones in the nervous system. That will help with relaxation later on at night.”
If diet, exercise, and a good bedtime regimen don’t do the trick—and you’ve determined with a health care practitioner that there’s no underlying health condition preventing your child from getting a good night’s rest—you can also try herbal remedies and natural supplements. For herbal remedies, van Drimmelen suggests teas containing camomile, lavender, lemon balm, or passion flower.
For stubborn sleep problems, you can also try magnesium supplements. They’re gentle and relaxing for the nervous system and safe for children, says van Drimmelen. Be sure to check with your health care practitioner for the correct dosage. Magnesium is also present in Epsom salts, which you can try mixing into the bath at bedtime. With luck, a peaceful sleep will soon follow.
Let’s face it—kids aren’t the only ones who sometimes have difficulty settling in for a good night’s sleep. Here are a few strategies for parents to try.