In her recurring column, author and sleep research guru Malia Jacobson answers reader questions about that most important of parenting tools: a good night's sleep. In this edition, what to do when they're afraid of the dark and how to make sleep happen this summer.
My 3-year-old son is suddenly resisting bedtime by crying and asking me to stay with him until he falls asleep, which can take up to an hour. It seems like he’s afraid of the dark. How long will this phase last?
Time to shed some light on this common sleep scapegoat. Your son’s distress is completely real, but it’s likely that something else is going on. A true phobia of the dark generally won’t show up until after age 4, when the part of the brain responsible for these types of fears takes off. Until then, children may resist sleep for a variety of reasons, but a true fear of the dark is rarely the sole cause.
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Instead, your son may be dealing with a fresh bout of separation anxiety. To help him through this, continue to stay with him at bedtime and reassure him with soothing words or light patting on the back. Each night, aim to spend a little less time at his bedside, until he returns to falling asleep on a more normal schedule.
Next, take a look at naps. Any time a child takes more than 20 minutes to fall asleep at bedtime, an adjustment to the nap routine may be in order — he may be napping too much, too long or too late in the day to allow him to fall asleep easily at bedtime. Around age 3, most children begin to need less daytime sleep. A slightly earlier daytime nap that is the right length for him (which may mean just an hour, 75 minutes, or 90 minutes) will help him fall asleep much more quickly at bedtime.
If these solutions don’t budge the boogieman, a dim nightlight could help — or at least, it might help you determine whether darkness is truly causing his sleep struggles. (Keep in mind that even small amounts nighttime light exposure can impact the body’s natural production of melatonin, so I usually recommend nightlights only as a last resort.)
If you do choose a nightlight, look for the newer amber lights that don’t contain blue light. Per research, blue light is the most damaging to melatonin production, so if you can find a nightlight without it, he'll have less disruption to his sleep patterns and overall sleep quality.
Our family’s summer plans include lots of camping out and sleepovers for our kids, ages 10 and 12. How can we help everyone sleep well?
Summer often brings a variety of different sleeping scenarios, from sleeping in a tent to sleeping in the living room at a slumber party. While losing some sleep in these situations is likely unavoidable, parents can help plan for maximum fun with minimal interruption to a child’s normal sleep routine.
First, make sure children have some familiar elements from their home sleeping space, whether it’s their regular pillow, a treasured stuffed animal, or a special blanket. Pack layers of nightwear, since nighttime temperatures in tents and cabins can be unpredictable.
Next, have children come indoors or (into the tent, if you’re camping) about an hour before bedtime; moving into a darkened space cues melatonin production and helps prepare the brain for sleep.
And while it’s okay to bend bedtime rules for special occasions and sleepovers, it’s best to stick within one hour of a child’s normal bedtime, to make sure that fatigue and crankiness won’t cramp your child’s summertime fun.