1. Move more during the day, especially in the daylight.
When we are more active, our bodies produce the “feel-good” chemical, dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is stored in the brain and is commonly known to enhance feelings of well-being. Dopamine’s counterpoint in our bodies is serotonin. While independently, these two neurotransmitters have different roles to play, together, they can enhance or balance the sleep-cycle in children and adults alike.
Playing outside in the sunshine, going for a walk or a bike ride, or sledding on a snowy day can help kids sleep better by re-setting their circadian rhythm, a natural sleep-wake cycle. Especially in the winter when days are shorter, bedtimes can be preceded by time watching tv or playing video games, so it is important to have kids get outside and get exposure to the available daylight to combat the disruptive effects of technology’s blue light on sleep.
2. Limit all technology before bed.
It seems like every retailer is offering blue light glasses nowadays. These lenses are designed to block the blue light emitted by everything from our televisions to our tablets and our cell phones. Blue light wavelengths are proven to stimulate the brain and increase alertness, boost mood, and speed-up reaction times. A recent study performed by Harvard University Medical School also showed that exposure to blue light powerfully impacts the body’s ability to produce and use melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone. Wearing blue-light blocking glasses has been shown to help with this exposure, but even those energy-efficient LED light bulbs emit more blue-light than the older incandescent bulbs. Taken in total, researchers agree that limiting technology and keeping lights dim at least 60 minutes before bed can help everyone fall asleep faster and enjoy more restful sleep.
3. Take time to talk.
The Washburn Center for Children in Minneapolis recommends that parents and children should take time to talk about their feelings daily. Expressing their thoughts and emotions can have a positive effect on your child’s ability to relax into sleep. By making this a part of a regular nighttime routine, kids have the chance to let go of any anxieties, share positive thoughts, and feel more connected before going to bed. While your first reaction to hearing your child say, “I’m afraid of school,” or “I feel sad about losing my game on the X-box,” may be to dismiss or minimize their feelings, try to ask a follow-up question instead. Remember the 5 W’s and keep the conversation going by asking, “why are you scared?” or “what happened in the game?” This is not a time to solve their problems as much as it is for you to open the channels of communication. Still stuck? Maybe start the habit of sharing highs and lows before bed. Other fun names for this reflective game include “Peaks and Pits” or “Happies and Crappies.”
4. Keep it cool.
As strange as it seems, our body temperature naturally drops when we get ready for sleep. Cooler body temps have been linked to deeper sleep and longer REM cycles in clinical sleep studies. Creating a “cool” environment for sleep does not mean you have to keep your child’s room freezing cold. Taking a warm bath or shower as part of a bedtime routine helps the body experience that natural “cooling” effect, triggering melatonin uptake and making us feel drowsy.
Scrap the flannel jammies if you also use flannel sheets in the winter. Not only does this make it difficult to move at night, the double whammy of warm PJs and warm sheets can make kids too hot, disrupting sleep or making it hard to fall asleep. Instead, opt for breathable cotton for bedding and pajamas. Using an electric blanket or mattress pad warmer (or similar settings on Sleep Number beds) to warm the bed before sleep, making it feel cozy and relaxing, but these should be turned off once the child tucks in for the night to help induce that “cooling” feeling to trigger sleep.
Lastly, experts have found that an average bedroom temperature of 60-67 degrees is optimal for sleep. Reducing the temperature in the house at bedtime will not only help everyone sleep better but may also save you a few dollars on your energy bill!
5. Try bedtime yoga or meditation.
Researchers all over the world have been studying the effects of mind-body therapies (MBTs) like yoga and meditation on sleep problems. Overwhelmingly, the research continues to support the theory that these practices can help us fall asleep faster and get more restful sleep during the night. Using apps like “Stop, Breathe & Think” or “Smiling Mind” can help walk kids through relaxing stories and bedtime meditations to help them prepare for bed. Restorative yoga poses or routines have been shown to help kids fall asleep faster and remain asleep, rather than waking repeatedly during the night. Try recommendations like the one offered from Gaiam or Yoga Journal. One thing to remember with these MBTs is that routine is key to these working to help with sleep. While some kids might respond right away to bedtime yoga or meditation, most people needed to practice these habits for a few weeks to see lasting benefits.