Do You Make This Routine Mistake With Your Kids?
“Wait, wait, wait,” said my client, a mother of four in her late 30’s. “I have this picture in my head of your house at night. Is it, like…dark and quiet?” she asked.
“Yeah…,” I answered, not exactly sure where this conversation was headed.
It was as though all of a sudden she was having an Aha! Moment. She said, “No wonder my kids don’t want to go to bed at night. Our lights are on, the TV is blaring, and they’re playing basketball in the middle of the living room at 9 o’clock.”
We had been discussing how chaotic her life seemed, not only because she had four kids, but because some of them exhibited symptoms often associated with ADHD, such as hyperactivity, an inability to focus, agitation, and poor impulse control.
Each child was involved in different afterschool activities, and both Mom and Dad were constantly shuttling the kids between schools, activities, and fast food drive-thru lanes.
Homework hardly ever got done and the kids rarely fell asleep before 10 pm. My client and her husband didn’t even begin to unwind from their day until 11.
This family was making a routine mistake that many families make: not having a routine at all.
When I realized this, I said, “Don’t even think about medicating your kids for ADHD right now. They’re exhausted!” (The same symptoms I listed above for ADHD are also related to sleep deprivation in kids.)
As I mentioned before in this post, even missing out on one hour of sleep a night can have a negative effect on kids’ functioning.
We decided our first priority in working together would be to establish a reasonable bedtime routine, so her kids could get the amount of sleep they needed. Within only two weeks, she reported that her kids were falling asleep by 8:30, whereas before, they were just starting to get ready for bed at that time. She noticed an overall improvement in her kids’ behavior and said that they actually enjoyed going to bed earlier.
Why Kids Need Routines
The importance of routines for kids cannot be overemphasized.
- Routines help children feel safe and in control because they know what to expect.
- Routines help kids feel calmer and less anxious because they’re not constantly wondering what’s going to happen next.
- There are fewer family power struggles when routines are in place.
- Kids develop a sense of mastery over certain tasks when they do them regularly, which helps them feel competent and boosts their self-confidence.
- Routines can be followed by other caregivers, such as babysitters and grandparents.
- Kids can eventually follow the routine independently.
Is Your Child Getting Enough Sleep?
Your child is likely getting enough sleep if he:
- Falls asleep quickly
- Sleeps through the night
- Wakes up easily
- Naps as appropriate for his age
- Functions well throughout the day
Your child may not be getting enough sleep if he:
- Is difficult to wake up
- Sleeps an extra hour or two on the weekends
- Falls asleep in the car or at other non-sleep times
- Becomes very cranky and irritable as the day progresses
- Has trouble concentrating
How to Establish A Bedtime Routine
My example deals with my own kids (there are two of them, and they’re three and a half years apart). While I believe these principles apply to all kids, the particular logistics may be different in your household. I plan to address some of those specifics in a future post, so keep reading to the end and leave your questions for me in the comments.
1. Work backwards.
First, figure out what time your child needs to wake up in the morning (or what time you’d like her to wake up) and work backwards from there.
For example, Dalia is four years old and naturally wakes up around 7 am. The average 4-year-old needs 11 hours of sleep, according to The National Institutes of Health, so I want her to FALL ASLEEP (not be in bed) by 8 pm. Marissa needs to wake up by 6:30 am for school, and 8-year-olds typically need about 10 hours of sleep, so she should FALL ASLEEP by 8:30 pm.
2. Decide how long you want the routine to last and what you will do.
My kids are 4 and 8* and our bedtime routine lasts about an hour. It’s pretty simple: bath, get dressed in pajamas, brush/floss teeth, read stories, snuggle, sleep. (Some nights we skip bath if they weren’t very active during the day.)
In our house, bath usually starts around 6:30. My kids still like to play in the tub together, so I allow time for that.
7:00 p.m. — It’s been my experience that special time with each child at the end of the day creates connection, especially since a lot of hopes and fears tend to come out at night.
I read to Dalia first, while Marissa waits in her room. We read one or two books and then snuggle for a few minutes and talk about the day. I always turn on some music before leaving her room. It’s the same CD she’s fallen asleep to since she was an infant – a mix of relaxing, classical songs I put together on iTunes that lasts about an hour. She can fall asleep without the music, but I find that it relaxes her, and makes it easier for her to drift off to Dreamland. She’s usually there by 7:45.
I then read a couple of chapters to Marissa, we snuggle/talk, and she reads to herself for a while before going to sleep.
I sometimes deal with one or both girls getting out of bed to make a request or to tell me something “really important,” but mostly they stay in their beds and sleep through the night.
I don’t allow them to sleep in my bed with me because the couple of times I’ve tried it, I ended up getting kicked and shoved to the edge of the mattress and didn’t feel well-rested the next morning.
*Update – My kids are now 8 and 11. We pretty much follow the same exact routine as outlined above, although now they take showers instead of baths.
3. Create a calm and relaxed environment.
There are dimmer switches in the girls’ bedrooms. They’re great for getting in the right frame of mind for sleep. I make sure the house becomes darker and quieter as bedtime gets closer.
Most sleep experts agree that TV and computers are too stimulating right before sleep. Reading is a calming activity, and including it in the daily routine can create a habit and lifelong love of reading.
4. Stick to the routine as much as possible.
Especially when first establishing a routine, it’s important to stick to it so that it can become a routine. This can take weeks, so be patient with yourself and your children. Don’t try to make too many changes all at once. You may need to adjust the bedtime slowly (in ten minute increments, for example) until you’ve reached your desired schedule. With sleep, it’s also good to stick to the schedule on weekends and holidays.
Once the routine is firmly in place, you can of course deviate from it on occasion for special events. But my advice is to try your best to protect your child’s sleep time because he really does need it. He may not look or act tired (and he’ll certainly never admit to being tired), but often kids who appear hyper are really overtired.
Do you have a bedtime routine in your house? What does it look like? What sleep issues are you currently struggling with in your home? Please ask all your questions here in the comments so I can answer them in a future post.
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The one other thing I think it’s important to add- if the kids’ activities get in the way of regular sleep/reasonable bedtime routines, CUT THE ACTIVITIES. Overscheduling is another symptom of a lack of routine.
Stacy, I totally agree. People think kids should be busy all the time, but they need rest — especially when they’re little! Thank you so much for commenting 😘
What a great read!
I have a 4 year old and almost 1 year old.
I’m having difficulty getting them both to sleep at night.
The 4 year old has always been an awful sleeper, at the moment we are lucky if she’s asleep by 10pm. My husband and I are so exhausted. She refuses to go to sleep.
She winds up our younger daughter making it difficult to settle them both down.
Do you have any suggestions?
Thank you 🙂
Hi Amanda! I’d be happy to help you out, but I need some more information. Would you please give me some more details about the daily schedule and what happens at bedtime? Feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com, too. Thanks:)
I have a very hard time sticking to the “routine”. Any routine. That said I do try. I agree 100% that my 3 & 4.5 year olds do a million times better when we do follow. That said here is my question: my 4.5 year old has a very hard time falling asleep with or without routines. I keep the house quiet and I have the same sound machine since she was born that we use. We made the mistake when she was a baby to hold her and rock and whisper, etc when she was a baby due to her having horrific reflux. The problem now is that she doesn’t know how to sleep. I am constantly having to help remind her to close her eyes. If she’s exhausted beyond normal she’ll fall asleep 2 minutes after she stops moving and closing her eyes. But if she normal day tired it takes her hours. I don’t know how to help her. The other problem is that every Friday night she goes to bed 2-4 hours past our 7:30 ‘bedtime’. Also we both work and don’t get home until 6 or 6:30 so that makes us feel like she’s just trying to spend ‘more’ time with us.
I’m open to any healthy idea.
Hi Jeni C! Thanks for posting your question! I have a couple of questions for you, too: Why do you suppose you have difficulty sticking to routines? Does your daughter still nap during the day? If so, for how long? Also, how much time do you and your husband spend with her during the day? Is it just the hour or so after you get home from work? Finally, what happens during the couple of hours between ‘bedtime’ and when she finally falls asleep?
Great post! We enjoy our bedtime routine with our kids as well. It is the most special time where we just listen to them talk and don’t judge, we just cuddle and enjoy each other.
I know our son feels safe with a routine. He knows what to expect during the day – but he also knows that at times the routine changes (for example on holidays or weekends) and that’s ok too!
When I work with clients I often tell them that by having a routine they will be more creative. This can seem like a complete contradiction, but if you know when certain things happen and you block out time for them you will be more productive – and creative will know when to flow!
Such an important post Pam, especially in this digital age when there are so many devices to distract our children and disrupt routines. Sleep debt is a big problem for children. I also agree that some ADHD diagnoses may actually be sleep debts. As a Mum with a newborn and toddler I know how important routines are- we don’t have a strict routine but more of a ‘rhythm’ to our days and that seems to work.
Great post, Pam! I agree that routine is really important. We have been pretty routine about our routine for a long time, and find that because we have it so well established, we can transfer it all over the place to un-routine situations- sleepovers at grandparents, travel/time changes, etc…
I agree that weekends/school breaks are nice since there’s not the “pressure” of needing to be so on-schedule, but I do my best to keep it pretty close. Thanks again, Pam!
Routines SOUND boring, but they are life savers! My boys are 14 and 11 now and have lived with a pretty steady stream of routines and continue to thrive. Life is less chaotic with some good routines in place.
Saying that, I LOVE school breaks when we can throw routines out the window and live a bit more spontaneously! (But then I warmly welcome the return of the routine when school starts again…) 😉
Yes, Kelly! Routines = Less Drama. I can’t say I share your enthusiasm for school vacations, however. Some break from the routine and spontaneity is good, but I still try to protect that sleep as much as possible. I LOVE SLEEP! Thanks for commenting!
Oh I love this post!! There are a few people I would love to forward this to… 🙂
I couldn’t function without a routine – and I know my children thrive on one too. But thank you for confirming just how important they really are – for all involved!! X
Amy – feel free to forward this to as many people as you’d like:)
This blog is brilliant. I couldn’t function without a routine and lots of down time, especially quiet time at night. I also have to do some of this myself, recently I have been going to bed earlier so I get enough sleep.
I recently heard that every hour you sleep before midnight is worth 2 after midnight?
Thanks so much for posting this, it’s fantastic.
Clare – I’m so happy you liked the post! I’ve never heard that about the sleep before/after midnight…interesting.