From bad dreams to fragmented sleep to straight-up insomnia, the pandemic is taking its toll on sleep. While the dangers of sleep deprivation in parents are well documented, we’re unfortunately pretty used to it and can (usually) continue to function—but for some kids, the nightly disruption is causing wild wake-up times, negative behavior, and serious cases of the crankies that are making parents’ jobs that much more stressful.
It makes sense this is happening. After all, the pandemic’s potential impact on our health, our finances, and even the way our families’ daily lives function has a huge effect on our sleep. Plus, getting kids to sleep can be a struggle even in the best of times—and with fewer reasons to set alarms for activities, school, or daycare in many areas, it’s natural for bedtimes to get looser and looser. While some families might be loving the more relaxed schedule, the result in many households is stressed-out, moody kids who have erratic sleep patterns or a hard time sleeping altogether.
There’s no getting around the importance of sleep, but it’s especially crucial for kids, who are developing both mentally and physically, says Dr. Sumit Bhargava, director of Stanford Children’s Health Sleep Center.
What parents should do
While it’s perfectly OK not to follow the same schedule you had pre-pandemic, it’s important their sleep hours don’t become wildly unpredictable, either. Try to be consistent with your child’s bedtimes and wake-up times, even if you have nowhere to go in the morning. This helps to regulate sleep rhythms—plus it’s pretty instrumental for parents who might be returning to work outside the home as places of business open back up. A little sunlight exposure through the window upon waking also sends a signal to the brain that it’s time to get up.
On the other hand, if you have a young child who has started waking up much earlier than you’d like, a pediatrician in our parenting Facebook group had some helpful advice. She reminds parents that our usual go-to responses, like letting the child watch a show or pulling them into bed with us to get a few extra minutes of sleep, might be making things worse. Instead, she recommends offering a reward, like a sticker or a treat, for going back to bed and staying there until you come to wake them up. Otherwise “you’re rewarding him with attention at 4am,” she points out. “Reward the desired behavior instead.”
Several other parents reported having luck moving their kids’ bedtimes earlier to get their kids to sleep in later. It sounds backwards, but actually putting young kids to bed later sometimes means they’re over-tired, which leads to less restful sleep (and an earlier wake-up time). Moving bedtime a bit earlier can help some kids fall into a better sleep routine, which helps them sleep later in the morning.
At night, while you don’t want kids to be over-tired, it is important that your kiddo is sleepy come bedtime. One way to ensure they’re tired is to make sure they get some type of exercise during the day, even if it’s just active playtime at home, a romp in the park or yard, or crawling and reaching if you’ve got a baby. Spending at least some time outdoors is also a good idea.
Snuggling at bedtime can also go a long way to helping kids feel safe at night when a lot of kids feel unsettled, either because of troubling news, missing their friends, or if they simply long for more attention. This is the perfect time to spend a few minutes asking them questions and talking about your day, one on one, or focusing on some really connected reading practices at bedtime.
Screen time at night can also disrupt sleep. The blue light that’s emitted stimulates the brain and can inhibit the production of melatonin and serotonin, the hormones that make you feel sleepy. Experts recommend making sure devices are off at least 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime, and not allowing devices in the bedroom at all.
A word on naps
If you’ve got a child who naps and now suddenly doesn’t, or perhaps is now napping for longer to accommodate for lack of sleep at night, it’s important to try to regulate their rhythm now, before the habits stick. According to the Nemours Children’s Health, a leading nonprofit kids healthcare system, babies 6 to 12 months need 14 hours of total sleep per day, including two naps. Toddlers need 12 to14 hours of sleep, including an afternoon nap of 1 to 3 hours. Preschoolers average about 11 to 12 hours at night, plus an afternoon nap. Most children give up naps altogether by the time they’re 5.
If your child isn’t napping enough, try lying down with them for quiet time every day at about the same time. You’d be surprised how easily quiet time can turn into nap time, but even when it doesn’t at least your kiddo will get some much-needed rest. If too much napping is the problem, try waking them a few minutes earlier each day for a week until the naps are shorter and more regular.
If your kiddo is still having problems with sleep, the experts at Stanford Children’s Health say it’s important to know if the problem is night terrors, sleepwalking, or nightmares.
Nightmares are bad dreams that kids remember. When those happen, try providing an alternative, happier ending to their memories, which can help reduce anxiety and even change the tone of the dream if it’s recurring over multiple nights. Remind them nightmares are just part of an active imagination, so they’re perfectly safe.
If your child sleepwalks or has night terrors, they won’t remember either. In those instances, it’s important to talk to your pediatrician or perhaps even a sleep specialist if they persist. The experts at Stanford Children’s Health say you don’t need to have a major issue to see a sleep specialist, but sometimes having an expert opinion can help everyone relax and sleep better.
Whatever happens, don’t despair. Most kids experience disruptions to their sleep routines many times during their lives, and a pandemic is certainly ample cause. Stick with it and eventually, this phase shall pass.