Healthy Families Series Part 5: Getting enough sleep and rest

Family stress and poor sleeping patterns are associated with many problems: obesity, physical illness, poor performance in school and increased behavioural problems.

While the exact reasons for this are not clear, it makes sense that a child or parent who is chronically tired or stressed is less likely to have the energy to exercise and more likely to engage in unhealthy coping strategies; such as binging on sugary foods, mindlessly surfing the internet, or, in the case of parents, even drinking to excess.

Over-tired children are less able to concentrate at school and more likely to have difficulties regulating their behaviour. Stressed parents are less patient and attentive at home and more likely to to be irritable and shout at their children. Sadly, chronically tired parents and children are less likely to relax, play and have fun together.

Establishing restful and relaxed routines in the family
A central component of health in the family is establishing relaxed routines. The most important of these is an early and relaxed bedtime routine to ensure parents and children get enough sleep. Indeed this nightly routine positively impacts all of the other routines during the day.

Children who get enough sleep wake up well-rested and in a better mood to ensure the morning routine goes smoothly. They are then more able for the demands of the school day. However, establishing a good bedtime routine can be far from easy, especially when children and parents have busy schedules or when families have got into a pattern of late and stressful bedtimes.

Creating a good routine
Take time to visualise the ideal routine you would like at bedtime in your home. Break it down into small steps that you can explain to your children. Make sure the routine includes time for a relaxing wind-down, some special connecting time between you and your children and also time for you and your partner. For example, a bedtime routine might be:

6.15pm Playtime at home
6.45pm Supper with parents
7.15pm Pyjamas and teeth washing
7.30pm Reading with mum or dad in bedroom
7.45pm Reading alone in bedroom
8pm Lights out in bedroom
8- 9.30pm Relaxing time for parents

Involve your children in planning the routine
Sit down with your children and go through the steps of the routine in advance. Involve them as much as possible and let them make some of the decisions. For example: what book they might read, where they have supper and what music they might play in their bedroom.

Drawing the routine on to a clear chart can be very helpful, particularly for young children. The more attractive the chart is the better – some parents use photos on the chart to remind the child of what is expected. It can be really helpful to make the chart together with your child as well as letting them decorate it.

Start small and be patient
Good bedtime routines can take time to get established – especially if your current routine is far from ideal. It is best to make changes gradually. For example: supposing you have got into a habit of a late bedtime of 10pm for your children and you want to move this to a better time of 8.30pm, rather than switching immediately to 8.30 pm – which is likely to be very hard – make this change over time.

  • Sit down with your child and explain that you are moving to an earlier bedtime of 8.30pm and that you are going to do this gradually.
  • Agree that for the first night he/she has to be in bed by 9.50pm, the second night by 9.40pm, the third by 9.30pm and so on.
  • Give a small reward for each night he/she makes the target. For example: gold stars on a chart which add up to extra pocket money at the weekend.

Keep the routine most of the time
Of course there will be occasions where you are unable to keep to the bedtime routine. During a busy week there may be important activities that mean your children are out later one evening or unknown events that interrupt your schedule.

The important thing is that you commit to keeping the routine most of the time, so that more often than not your children have a relaxing wind down and early bedtime each evening. Also, at weekends it is ok to have a different routine and this can be a special treat for families such as staying up later to watch a family movie together.

Taking care of parents
On first meeting families clinically I’m often struck by how stressed the parents are. The parents can be worn out balancing the demands of caring for children, working outside the home and dealing with the individual problems they are seeking help for. My advice is always to suggest to parents to prioritise their own self-care. Though the parents are seeing me to help their children, they will not be able to do this unless they manage their own stress first.

Below are some tips for parents’s self-care that are important to integrate into your routine, especially if you’re feeling stressed.

  • “Me time” allow at least 15 minutes to do something for yourself everyday, without the pressures of children and work
  • Exercise have a time every day when you can get active and exercise.
  • Getting outside in nature and the fresh air, even walking to school with the kids, can make all the difference
  • Identify at least one weekly hobby that you enjoy, whether this is a formal class you attend or even simply reading a book at home
  • Mindfulness take a few minutes to meditate or become mindful of your breathing. Before sleeping or on waking up can be a good time to do this
  • Practice gratitude keep a journal and note down three things you have enjoyed and are grateful for each day

John Sharry is the co-founder of the Parents Plus Charity, and Adjunct Professor in the Dept of Psychology, UCD.
Originally published in The Irish Times Health Plus, 3rd February 2019

To read other articles in this 6-part series on building a healthy family click here.

For information on John’s upcoming talks and courses for parents, click here.