I grew up with a dad who pushed sleep like an Avon lady pushes lipstick. Sleep was sacred, and you didn't mess with the bedtime routine. Dad was a big fan of sleeping early and sleeping often. Every day he came home from work and took what he called his afternoon schnooze. He prescribed more sleep for pretty much every ailment.
It turns out, like in so many things, Dad was right. Quality sleep is essential for everyone, but especially for our growing sons. Extensive research has shown that it improves performance, increases cognitive reasoning, and aids in growth and development. It also strengthens the immune system, even repairing the heart and blood vessels. When we sleep, our brains are forming new pathways to aid us for the upcoming day. A lack of sleep is linked to everything from obesity to ADHD. Yet with all the artificial light we pump into the world, plus the endless stream of entertainment, it’s easy to rob our boys (and ourselves) of enough rest.
We may do our best and still feel like we’re fighting a losing battle. Kids between the ages of 5-12 need anywhere from 9-11 hours of sleep. This can be tough with early start times for school, piles of homework, and late-night activities. And if your house is like mine, summer has our schedules all upended. Where we live, it’s light until almost 10 p.m., which makes my boys think they can party on the streets with the neighbor kids until the stars come out. On the other end, the resident blue jays usually begin an arboreal cocktail party around 4:45 a.m., waking the entire house with their screeches.
And then there are those sleep-resistant sons. You know who they are—the ones who complain about fatigue during the day (usually about the time you ask them to do the dishes, hmm…), yet the minute you mention bedtime they come to life in a frenzy of wrestling and bed-hopping and bathroom shenanigans.
These are the ones who fight sleep at all cost, who spring out of bed for water and snacks and one more interesting fact. They come in at midnight, saying they can’t fall asleep. They’re back at your side at 2 a.m., and again at four. They’re either sluggish during the day or hyperactive, or a mix of both.
Yet even for those finicky sleepers, there are tried-and-true strategies. Here are research-based techniques to ensure a good night’s rest for the restless among you:
Eat early: It’s really hard to fall asleep with a bellyful of dinner, since the body is too busy digesting food to allow itself to rest. So eat early, ideally 1.5-2 hours before bedtime. If your son snacks before bed, keep it light, nothing more than a piece of toast or fruit. Avoid caffeine and sugar in the late afternoon and evening. Both act as stimulants.
Wade in the water: A nighttime shower or bath has a calming effect on kids, as well as washing away the day’s dirty adventures. Consider using products with soothing, calming smells, like lavender. And of course, make sure your son’s hair is dry before going to bed. It’s hard to sleep on a wet pillow.
Make a cave: It’s tough for kids to fall asleep or stay asleep with the sun shining through the window. Try to make your son’s room as cave-like as possible—it may not make for a Pinterest-worthy bedroom, but it’s one of the biggest helps toward gifting your son a good night’s sleep. Black curtains work well , but if you’re worried about aesthetics you can buy inexpensive pull-down darkening shades like these. Free the room of blinking lights from electronics, humidifiers, and alarm clocks. If the room does have an alarm clock, turn the lit-up face away from the bed. Some kids love night lights, but if they’re disturbing your son’s sleep, move the light to the hallway or bathroom and leave the door open a crack.
Cool it: We all sleep better when the air is cool. If you live in a cooler climate, open the windows to cool off the room, or put a fan in the window to blow in the cool night air. If you live in a warmer climate, try and keep the room as cool as possible. Dress your son in light clothing with a light, cool bedspread or sheet.
Make noise: Some boys do really well with white noise in the background. In the summer, box fans or ceiling fans can provide that noise. You can also buy white noise machines if you’re not wanting to cool the room at the same time.
Make it a sleep-only zone: This is contested topic, but if you can, limit toys and other diversions in the bedroom. In a room filled with toys, kids will associate the room with play, not sleep. Of course, older boys can make that mental adjustment, but a clean, open room will create a psychological shift in your son’s brain to help him sleep better. Plus, it feels nice to sleep and wake up in an open, clean room.
Turn off devices: Have you ever stared at your phone right before bed, only to find your eyes flashing when you close them to sleep? Multiple articles suggest that reading from lit screens or watching TV right before bed impedes our ability to fall asleep, reduce melatonin levels, and negatively affects REM cycles. The same goes for our boys. The brain needs about an hour rest from all screens prior to bedtime. Both kids and adults are really terrible at this. (Guilty hand-raise right here.) Consider doing the following: Have a check-in time an hour before bed, where all screens and devices are handed to a parent and shut down for the night. That may mean investing in an analog alarm clock and picking up paper books instead of digital. If you allow movies or TV before bed, start and end an hour earlier so there is still screen-free time right before bed. Also, don’t keep TVs, game consoles, or devices in the bedrooms of your children.
Be consistent: This is probably the hardest thing to do, especially in the summer with travel and other fun outings. But if you’re able, try to be as consistent as possible with bedtime, knowing there are going to be a few late nights thrown in on occasion. Almost more important, have your child wake up at the same time every day. Again, this is challenging during the summer, but if you allow your son to sleep in, he’s going to have a harder time going to bed in the evening. Try and stick to the same bedtime routine, which should, as mentioned above, include some downtime before sleep. A child’s natural rhythm makes him tired around 7 or 8 p.m. This shifts to a later hour as a child enters the teenage years. However, if you keep a child up past his bedtime, he may pass the point of drowsiness and experience a burst of energy, or “second wind,” making it even harder to get him to bed.
Wear him out: If your son has a hard time falling asleep, he may not be getting enough physical activity during the day. Research shows most kids fall into this camp, and it that can impede their ability to sleep.
If a boy sits all day, or even for a couple hours watching TV or playing games, he may not be physically tired enough to sleep. He’ll have a restless night’s sleep and either be sluggish or fidgety the next day.
Get creative with how you get your boys to move. A one-hour soccer practice once a week is not enough. Some experts suggest as much as three hours of physical activity daily, and I would push for even more. Bottom line: you can't get your boys moving too much.
If your son isn’t the type to engage in his own physical activity, get creative. Have him run laps around the house. Make him do pushups and situps when he fights with his brother. We’re big fans of the New York Times 7-minute workout as a starter to the day, or we’ll send our older kids on sprints or a bike ride around the neighborhood. Give your son challenges: sprint five time, bounce a ball for 10 minutes, see how high you can climb a tree. Swimming is one of the best ways to get boys to really expend their energy. Have your son join a summer swim team or take him to swim laps. (We do this during our exceptionally long Minnesota winters.)
Chores are another great way to get boys moving: have them mow the lawn, weed the garden, trim branches, dig holes, spread mulch, vacuum rugs, shine windows, and haul their laundry up and down the stairs.
For the hardcore non-sleepers: Some kids are just chronic poor sleepers. For these boys, you may have to move to more extreme measures. Check your son’s mattress and pillow to make sure they’re a good fit. Some kids, instead of needing a light sheet, do really well under a heavy quilt or weighted blanket.
Kids should not take sleeping pills, but melatonin, a natural sleep aid, can help some kids sleep, especially if taken two hours before bedtime. Other natural aids, like herbal tea with chamomile, can help in sleep. Reading before bed is a good way to calm down for most kids, but not all. If reading is a stressful activity, or excites your son’s mind too much, switch to something else: out-loud reading or drawing, or just listening to calming music. If none of these methods work, you might want to check with a doctor for the likelihood of swollen tonsils/adenoids or sleep apnea.
With a little ingenuity, a little elbow grease, and a little knowledge, you may just have your boys sleeping like, well, babes.