Surprising Kid Sleep Saboteurs

by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka

Surprising Kid Sleep Saboteurs

Her sleep cycle may be out of whack  — here’s how to set it straight

Is your child easygoing, or does every little setback or disappointment lead to a tantrum? If he still takes naps, does he settle down without much fuss, or fight like crazy and then crash out during playdates or on short car trips? Later, is bedtime a battle?

Some seemingly minor decisions you make throughout the day may be setting you up for these power struggles. For instance, if you let your child stay up past his usual bedtime as a treat, give him a late lunch, or let him watch TV just before he turns in, you may unknowingly be upsetting his body clock.

This internal timer is the control center for the body’s sleep-wake cycle. And it needs to be set  — with things like good sleep habits, a proper diet, and well-timed exercise. Throw it off, and your child will be wide-awake when he ought to be sleeping, drowsy when he needs to be alert, and grumpy more often than he should be.

By identifying the things that disrupt your child’s body clock, you can often avoid  — or at least plan around  — them.

Does your child go to bed and/or wake up 30 to 60 minutes later on weekends than on weekdays?

It’s tempting to let your child turn in late on Friday or Saturday night, figuring you’ll let her sleep in the next morning. Why not bend the rules when she doesn’t have daycare or school?

But if she’s used to getting up at a certain time, she’ll probably still awaken then  — short of sleep and irritable. By naptime (if she still naps) she’ll be overtired and unable to settle down until later in the afternoon. And because her nap will be late, it’s likely she’ll be up watching the 10 o’clock news with you.

If, by some chance, your child does sleep late, it’s likely to be poor-quality rest. She’ll awaken feeling groggy because she’s not in sync with her body rhythm.

The symptoms of your child’s off-kilter body clock may not be obvious. In fact, they may seem more like misbehavior. She’ll insist she can’t sleep, beg for another glass of water or bedtime story before turning in, and come get you every time she wakes up in the wee hours. The next day she’ll be even more sleep-deprived, and her internal timekeeper will continue to struggle.

None of this means that you can never spend a late evening at a friend’s or let your child stay up later on a weekend night. Just think about the pros and cons before you do it, knowing there’s a good chance that it may make the following day tougher for you both.

Adapted from Sleepless in America: Is Your Child Misbehaving or Missing Sleep? by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, copyright © 2006 by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.

Does your child spend time outside only in the afternoon and/or evening?

Strong morning light is a powerful influence on our body clocks. So while it’s easy to let the kids flip on the TV when they wake up, it’s not the best idea. Lounging inside can stoke the fire for meltdowns later, since kids’ brains don’t get a clear signal to be awake.If your child is a night owl, his first inclination will not be to get up and get going.

Respect his need for a slower start, but know that limited exposure to early light leaves his body clock in limbo. Limit TV in the morning and take your child outside for a few minutes instead, if the weather permits. “I make sure my son, who’s seven, is ready for the school bus ten minutes early,” says Sandra Wittrock of Oak Brook, Illinois. “We all go outside, even his little sisters and our dog. Joseph looks forward to running in the yard with everybody before the bus arrives. It not only energizes his mind but also helps him work out his school jitters and puts him in a good mood.”

Does your child watch TV right before bed, or does her room get light from the rising or setting sun or a street lamp?

If the answer is yes, watch out. These things are more likely to disrupt her sleep than a noisy fan, or even sharing a room.

Exposure to light helps set the body clock, but at inappropriate times it can also disrupt it. Light from a window can trick her body into thinking it’s early in the day instead of time for bed  — or make her wake up too soon, as Tonya Weyant of Clarksville, Tennessee, discovered. “When my son Jackson was about two and daylight saving time kicked in, the sun started coming through his window very early in the morning. It was awakening him sooner than his body  — or his parents  — wanted to start the day. So his great-grandmother made him some heavy curtains. After that, he began to sleep soundly.”

If you let your child watch TV as she’s drifting off, the light from the screen may make it more difficult for her to fall asleep. “My son Allen used to sleep in the same bed as me and my husband when he was small, and we’d often lay him down and then sit and watch TV together. It seemed to distract him a lot and make it hard for him to settle down. Then he’d wake often in the night and be very cranky in the morning,” says Melissa Warburton of Green Bay, Wisconsin. “After we began putting him to sleep in his own bedroom, we discovered that he slept much better and was more refreshed the following morning.”

Does your child use a computer or watch TV for more than an hour a day? Does he do any of these things after 6 p.m.?

Chances are, you answered yes to both questions. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that kids 6 and under spend as much time in front of a screen as they do playing outside.

If your child is misbehaving and has trouble sleeping, look at the number of hours he spends basking in that bluish glow. More than an hour a day of screen exposure  — at any time during the day, not just before bed  — may be playing havoc with his body clock if he’s highly sensitive to light.

The best solution: Limit game time, and schedule homework that involves the computer so it’s completed early in the evening. If your child is still an infant or a toddler, don’t let him sit on your lap for long periods as you work on the computer, or you may end up paying a steep price at naptime and bedtime.

Does your child get less than an hour of physical activity a day? Did she spend more than an hour today in a bouncy seat, high chair, car seat, or stroller?

Answering yes to either of these questions is a warning: She may not be getting enough exercise, which in turn can lead to sleep problems.

Physical activity signals to the body that it’s time to be wakeful, and creates a healthy fatigue that promotes sleep. But most kids today don’t get enough exercise.

Even small children sometimes don’t move around enough. “I had no idea how much time my youngest daughter spent strapped in,” says one mom of four. “But then I started adding it all up: I put her into her high chair for breakfast, then I pop her into her car seat so I can take the older kids to school. Next I do some shopping, and she gets strapped into the cart. Then it’s back in the car seat for the trip home, and into her high chair for lunch. She barely has a chance to move for four and a half hours straight! No wonder she fights her naps so badly.”

Of course, if your child is sitting in a car or a high chair, she needs to be restrained for her own safety. But you may have to ease up on how efficiently you schedule errands, and break them up so your child doesn’t spend too many of her waking hours confined. Make sure older kids get enough chances to exercise, too. Try to set aside a little time each day to play in the yard or at a nearby park, and look into organized activities like local baseball and soccer leagues. Best of all, make exercise a regular family activity by planning fun outings, such as bicycle trips and walks.

Do you roughhouse together before bedtime?

Exercise at the right time of the day promotes sleep, but at the wrong time  — a couple of hours before bed, for instance  — it can have exactly the opposite effect. That’s because, besides revving them up, horsing around makes kids overheated. This can confuse the body clock, since one signal for us to “switch” to sleep is a natural drop in body temperature.

Of course, no one’s suggesting you deprive your children of Dad’s famous piggyback ride. Just rethink the timing  — say, before dinner or even in the morning, before you all go your separate ways  — so that physical activity doesn’t interfere with bedtime routines.

Do you sometimes let your child have a soda as a treat?

Caffeine increases the time it takes you to drift off and decreases how long and deeply you sleep. It can also make you tense and anxious, raise blood pressure, and make you sweat more and urinate more frequently.

For adults, a low dose of caffeine is considered to be 80 milligrams a day  — two colas. But the chemical’s effects are intensified in kids since they’re smaller. So when a child has a can of cola, it’s like an adult drinking eight cans. Kids’ systems metabolize caffeine more slowly than adults as well; about half the caffeine consumed at 3 p.m. is still in your child’s body at 7 p.m. And the less often he has caffeine, the more it affects him.

Caffeine frequently hides in other soft drinks besides colas, including certain brands of root beer and orange soda. It’s also in some popular foods, such as chocolate. So when your child drinks a soda and then has a chocolate dessert, you may not realize how much of a jolt he’s gotten.

Is there more than a 30- to 60-minute difference between when your child eats meals and snacks on weekdays and weekends?

Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks all play a role in setting your child’s internal clock. If serving times vary, her body has no clear cues as to when it should be taking in nourishment. Irregular meals also lead to hunger, which in turn creates discomfort and tension that make it even more difficult to unwind (and fall asleep) later on.

There’s usually a natural dip in energy right after lunch, making it the perfect time to settle your child down. But if lunchtime regularly changes, you may miss that window of opportunity and set the stage for a meltdown rather than a siesta.

Some children never seem to fall into any type of predictable eating routine  — maybe your child is one of them. Still, though she may at first resist a mealtime schedule, she’ll benefit in the long run, since her environment will be guiding her body rhythms.

Know your child. Don’t force her to eat when she’s not hungry  — this will only make you both tense. But do take note of what happens to her sleep and behavior when her meal and snack schedule fluctuates.