DEAR DOCTOR K:
My 8-year-old has trouble falling asleep. Can you give me some practical suggestions that may help?
The pediatricians here at Harvard Medical School who specialize in sleep problems have given me this advice: To help your child (or anyone of any age, for that matter) fall asleep, you must remove the obstacles that may impede or disrupt his sleep. By doing so, you’ll make it much easier for your child to settle down and drift off into a restful slumber.
Here are some suggestions that should help:
- Stop your child’s caffeine intake at least eight hours prior to bedtime. Not a lot of 8-year-olds drink coffee or tea, but there’s plenty of caffeine in cola beverages or in chocolate, for example.
- Reduce your child’s exposure to bright light for the two hours before bedtime. Dimmer light helps the brain prepare for sleep.
- Keep your child’s bedroom dark, quiet and at a comfortable temperature.
- If your child still uses a night-light, choose one with a low-intensity bulb.
- Reduce the intensity of your child’s reading lamp to 40 watts or less.
- Some parents play classical music in the background, hoping it will lull a child to sleep. Bad idea. Music — particularly great music — is not “white noise.” The ingenious melodies and rhythms are compelling and call to you even when you’re asleep. Even generally soft music can have sudden loud moments. And if you play it, but let it stop when the piece ends, your child may notice the sudden absence of music and have trouble falling back to sleep without it.
- Remove video games, media players, cellphones, computers and TVs from your child’s bedroom. Pretty obvious advice, I know, but you’d be surprised how often it’s not followed.
- Position your child’s alarm clock so that it faces away from the bed. This can be helpful if your child stresses out each time he sees that five more minutes have passed and he’s still awake.
- Insist that your child do his homework at a desk (or better yet, outside the bedroom), not in bed. When homework is done in bed, the associated stress doesn’t go away just because the books are closed. Really, it’s the same advice I give adults with problems sleeping: Use the bed for sleeping, not for reading, watching TV or playing games. (If you regularly do these things in bed and think they help you fall asleep — and you don’t have trouble sleeping — please ignore my advice.)
- Keep pets out of your child’s bedroom (and out of his bed!).
A great e-book, short and inexpensive, about how to help your child fall asleep and stay asleep is “Successful Sleep Strategies for Kids” by Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Dennis Rosen. You can find it on Amazon.com.