My wife and I have developed a habit of peeking in to check on our 3-year-old every night before bed. Our bedtime to be specific, as his curfew is significantly earlier. This practice started as a practical need to change his inevitably full diaper, and evolved into just making sure he was asleep and still cute (Yep, still cute). A constant danger of this late night peek-in can be finding a still-awake child who, upon seeing Mommy and Daddy are coming to “play,” revs up with buckets of energy. The key to reducing that scenario is proper sleep hygiene, of which the digital age is the biggest enemy.
Sleep hygiene is the idea that there are certain practices people of any age can adhere to in order to improve their sleep. Some obvious habits are avoiding stimulants such as caffeine close to bedtime, staying away from large meals close to bedtime, and establishing a regular relaxing bedtime routine. Associate your bed with sleep. As adults, our lives are so exhausting that maximizing our recuperation is a must. Compare that to a toddler who can fall asleep in the car seat on the way home from a dinner out, many people figure sleep hygiene isn’t as important for them. I say it is.
Going to sleep cuddled up to your favorite toy is something many children can relate to. Now throw some high-pitched sounds and flashing lights to that toy, and you have a level of stimulation that might be counter-intuitive to good sleep hygiene. Going one step further, a battery-powered train set that moves on its own might be a temptation that younger toddlers can’t resist. Bedtime might be an 8:30 p.m., but sleep might not occur until hours later when biology finally overrides the desire to play. In this case in particular I speak from experience.
Growing up, having a toy with some sort of automation or electronics was not the norm for me, but then I’m not growing up today. My son, through my doing and others, has amassed quite the collection of robotic playthings. Every time he gets a new toy, he insists it be placed in his bed with him at night so he can play with it as he drifts of to sleep. At first, I saw no harm in this and allowed him to have whatever toy he wanted. As his toys became more complex, he would stay up later and later playing with them. More often than not, my nightly check in would find him still awake, playing with his trains or any number of other play sets.
The pull back from that point was difficult. While he would cry profusely that he couldn’t sleep without his toys, a quick check 10 minutes later that found him sawing logs proved quite the opposite. It was a necessary evil, and the rewards continue to be highly visible. His mood has improved, dark bags under his eyes are vanquished, and he retains information from the previous day to a higher degree from when his bed was littered with powered gizmos and doodads. I’m not advocating for electronic toys to be completely removed from a toddler’s bed if you want him to sleep, but there must be a cutoff point. Limit the amount of electronic toys to one per night, and limit the time they can play with it to a reasonable time. Remember, as mature as they may seem from time to time, toddlers have no concept of self-control or rationing.
Assume he had the language and critical thinking skills to question how I sometimes play Xbox until 1:00 a.m. despite having work the next day. The difference between my admittedly poor sleep hygiene and a toddler doing the same is brain development. As much as I can still learn new things and grow as a person, at the ripe age of (age redacted), my brain is done cooking. Toddlers, on the other hand, are still raw in the oven. Staying up all night might not feel good to me, but it won’t stunt my development as a human being. Applied to my son, it would deprive him of vital cognitive development time, having exponential ramifications on his learning later in life. This may seem trivial, but proper sleep hygiene could be one of the more important things parents can focus on.
Proper sleep hygiene being interrupted by electronics is not limited to over-stimulating toys in the bed either. All too often bedtime is dictated by the credits rolling on a Disney movie, or the next level being reached in a video game. These activities keep the brain at a high level of activity, and the immediate transition to “YOU SLEEP NOW” can be jarring for anyone, especially kids. Planning adequate time after all screens are turned off to properly unwind will allow for falling asleep faster, getting to the all-important REM sleep quicker. Brushing teeth, reading a bedtime story (or making one up if you have the talent), can all be ways to place a buffer between screen time and bedtime. It might even make you as the parent improve your sleep hygiene as well, depending on when you plan on hitting the sack.
Ultimately children of the digital generation will find it hard to avoid electronic stimulation, especially in the evening when parents are too tired for “active” play. It’s very tempting to just put on a movie or hand them a video game and then when bedtime hits, straight to bed. And perhaps in the coming future, keeping electronic toys out of the bedroom will become increasingly difficult, but we must try. All kids really need is a consistent, low-stimulation lead up to bedtime, with a minimum of distractions once they get into bed. And if parents can’t muster up the energy for 30 minutes of calming down and reading a book, perhaps they should look at their sleep hygiene.
(Full disclosure: I’ve stopped staying up until 1:00 a.m. playing Xbox.)
Don’t miss last week’s column: Video Games: When are Kids Ready to Kill?