Making Sleep the “Good Guy”

How to help kids build a positive relationship to sleep

sleepAs a parent, how do you feel about sleep? Is it something to look forward to? An activity you value like good food and regular exercise? A treat you’d like to have more of?

The answer is probably yes to all of the above–we grown ups welcome the chance to sleep!

Unfortunately, our kids often don’t get that message. The hurried, anxious, go-to-sleep aspect of bedtime comes through loud and clear, and without even realizing it, we send kids the message that sleep is negative, or even a consequence or a punishment.

Let’s change our messaging around sleep. Sleep is a pleasure, and with good sleep we’re our best selves the next day. If you start talking about sleep as a positive, it’s a value your child will take with her for the rest of her life.

Here are ways to create a good relationship to sleep in your house:

Adjust your sleep tone and language.

We color our comments about sleep to our children with the overtones of a military commander! It’s built into our learned lingo just like the counterproductive, “good job” or “how about just one more bite.” We say things like,

  • You need to go to bed!
  • You’re going to be late for bed!
  • You’re so grouchy. Early to bed for you tonight!
  • You can either clean up your room or go straight to bed!
  • Get in your bed now and stay there!

Instead of addressing sleep as a dreaded consequence, how about…

  • It’s wind down time, who wants to dim the lights?
  • What mellow music should we play tonight?
  • Let’s pick 3 books to read. Can Mommy choose her fav?
  • I can’t wait to get cozy and snuggle with you while we read!
  • After I say good night to you, I’m going to get cozy in my bed and read my book. Yay!

Choose books that give sleep a good name.

The books we read to our children at bedtime can contribute a great deal to either a feeling of dread and obligation, or one of dreamy pleasure. Books that give sleep a truly positive name are hard to come by, but here are some ideas. Add your own and send us ideas if you find positive bedtime books on your shelves.

  • The Going to Bed Book (Sandra Boynton)
  • It’s Time to Sleep, My Love (Nancy Tillman)
  • Time for Bed (Mem Fox)
  • Ten, Nine, Eight (Molly Bang)
  • A Book of Sleep (Il Sung Na)
  • Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book
  • Louie and Lilly’s Nap Time

Loosen up the reading rules.

That quintessential side-by-side pose may not work for your little one, who likes to wander around on the rug while you sit on the floor and read. Other kids like having the book shown to them, like a teacher in school would do, with the parent facing them. This way, they can see both the book and your face (their favorite thing).

Don’t forget to use humor (change the last word in a well known sentence, put your child’s name in place of a character, use funny voices, animal sounds or ask what’s going to happen next) to make reading fun. Find books that you love. When your child feels how much you adore a book, she will share your delight.

Let your child in on why we sleep.

Your child is capable of understanding what’s so great about sleep. It’s all in how you present it.

The trick is to avoid the hard sell. We know how quickly kids resist exactly what they think we want for them. For the same reason we know how “Oh, you’ll love these peas, they’re sooooo good for you!” will backfire, we need to watch how we ‘sell’ sleep to our wily little ones. Present cool facts about sleep in a curious, intrigued way so it’s easy for them to join in. Avoid praising or rewarding good sleep. Rather, notice that they slept X number of hours the night before and ask them how their brains are feeling. Or how much energy they have. Talk about how you feel when you get enough or too little sleep in a matter of fact way.

Gosh, I read today that when we sleep, our brains are sorting all the stuff we did today into the right places so we can remember them later. How weird is that!

I heard this scientist on TV say that when we don’t get enough sleep, parts of our brain are still asleep when we are awake. Ahh, that explains why my head feels so fuzzy when I don’t get much sleep.

Let’s just try an experiment and all of us (Mommy and Daddy too) go to bed just 15 minutes earlier for a week. Then we’ll have a big meeting and tell each other how we feel.)

the happy sleeperJulie Wright and Heather Turgeon are co-authors of The Happy Sleeper: The Science Backed Guide to Helping Your Baby Get a Good Night’s Sleep–Newborn to School age (Penguin Random House, December 2014). You can learn more about them on their website, and follow them on Facebook @TheHappySleeper

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