Children react in different ways due to lack of ample sleep or even excess of sleep impacting their health, writes Kerry Bajaj, as she shares tips on how to ensure that your baby or child is able to sleep peacefully during a time when anxiety is running high in the family due to Coronavirus lockdown
Before the coronavirus lockdown, did you ever think your house could be capable of so much multi-tasking? My house is now a one-room schoolhouse, an office, a gym, a restaurant that’s turning out three meals a day, a messy art studio, a global pandemic monitoring station, and the place where our family relaxes and sleeps.
Speaking of sleep, I’ve never been so grateful that my kids have an early bedtime — 7 pm and 8 pm for the 4 and 5-year-old — and happily sleep through the night. As a sleep consultant, I’ve been speaking to many parents about how to navigate this challenging time. I’ve always preached that ensuring a good night’s sleep is a precious gift for our children, and I believe it now more than ever. Here’s why:
- Sleep is a powerful immune-booster. Both adults and children that are sleep-deprived are more susceptible to illness. Without sufficient sleep, your body produces fewer cytokines, which is a protein that targets infection.
- Sleep supports our emotional health. Sleep is a mood-booster, and acts as a soothing balm for our emotional balance. Much-needed at the moment.
- Sleep is crucial for all aspects of our physical health, from cardiovascular to metabolic to respiratory to immune system.
As Matthew Walker says in Why We Sleep, “Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day.”
Here’s my guidance on how to ensure your baby or child is able to sleep peacefully during a time when anxiety is surely running high in the family.
The Daytime Schedule
The hundreds of parenting decisions we make during the day will impact our children’s night sleep.
Anchors. As I say in Sleep, Baby, Sleep, routine is like a magic wand for parents to keep their babies happy, healthy and secure. But let’s face it — our young children have nowhere to go and no pressing deadlines. Yet we can still create a predictable routine, which provides a sense of normalcy and safety. For my two daughters, I’ve put a focus on creating “anchors” in our day, points of stability in the ocean of free play. After breakfast, we do our math lesson. While eating lunch, we listen to a storytelling podcast (Listen & Play by the BBC). In the afternoon, we work on phonics. In the late afternoon, we call the grandparents. Before dinner, my husband does physical exercise with the girls. These are the predictable touchpoints that they can count on every single day. There’s no need to be rigid, but having a daily rhythm with anchors gives children a sense of security.
Exercise. Our stir-crazy little kiddos need physical activity — and lots of it! Movement is great for releasing endorphins and will help our children to sleep well at night. Even when stuck inside, we have options — you can have a dance party, water play in a small kiddie pool or bathtub, Cosmic Kids Yoga, or hopscotch, relay race or frog jumps in the hallway. I’ve even seen videos of kids biking, roller skating and skateboarding inside the house. Be creative! Get the kids up and moving at least 3 times a day — and join them, because it’s a good stress-buster for you, too!
Screentime. As soon as the WHO declared a global pandemic, I decided that my strict stance on screentime could be relaxed during these weeks at home. My kids don’t nap anymore, and we all need downtime. Every day after lunch, we pull the curtains, turn off the lights, snuggle up under blankets and “go to the zoo.” Meaning we visit the Cincinnati Zoo Home Safari via their Facebook page. Hanging out with the hippos and porcupines is soothing, sweet and educational. If you’re juggling cooking, cleaning, laundry, work, and homeschooling — choose a nice programme
(I love Daniel Tiger for toddlers) and give some guilt-free screentime. Since we have a set time for screens, the kids aren’t bugging me to watch videos the rest of the day, which is an added bonus.
Note: please don’t use screentime for the 2 hours before bedtime, because it may be too stimulating and interfere with a good night’s sleep.
The Bedtime Schedule
Many families that I consult with have trouble setting a bedtime routine because they have family functions, weddings, and travel. Since all of that is off the table, it’s a perfect time to establish an age-appropriate bedtime for your little one.
Early to Bed. Babies and young children need 11 to 12 hours of continuous night sleep. This means that if your baby wakes up at 7 am, bedtime should be between 7 and 8 pm. Sleep is essential for your child’s mood, growth, development and immunity. To shift your child’s bedtime earlier, I recommend pulling the curtains and turning off the bright overhead lights after sunset. Create a bedtime routine. It can be simple — dinner, bath, books, bed. Write it down on a piece of paper, let your child decorate the bedtime chart, and hang it on the wall in their bedroom.
Comfy, Cozy Bedtime. I always encourage clients to think of bedtime as the best part of the day, rather than a power struggle. Cuddle up with your child, read books, sing a lullaby or say a prayer. In order for your child to relax enough to “let go” of the day and fall asleep, they should feel secure and connected. Every night I ask my daughters what they want to dream about (it’s often cake and unicorns) and then I spritz them with imaginary “dream spray.” This puts happy thoughts into their minds about sleep.
White Noise. I recommend white noise to every parent that wants their baby or child to sleep better. White noise provides a soothing rumbly backdrop for sleep and helps drown out the household noises. Especially these days when you may be taking late-night conference calls from the living room, play some white noise for your child. The easiest way to try it is by downloading a free app (such as Sleep Pillow) on your phone or tablet.
Will your child get “addicted” to white noise? This is a common question and the answer is no! If you want to wean off of white noise in the future, you can simply reduce the volume for a few days.
Sleep Training. I spoke with a mom of twins who has let go of her domestic helpers during quarantine, has a job in banking that has converted to work-from-home because of coronavirus, and is exhausted from the night wakings that used to be handled by a nanny. Her elderly mother is attending to one twin, and she is attending to another and they are both up twice at night, for as long as an hour each time. For babies over 6 months, you can do sleep training and proactively shape the sleep patterns so you don’t have so many night wakings. In my book Sleep, Baby, Sleep, you will get the complete guidance to help your baby sleep through the night. In the book, I also cover newborn sleep, baby sleep, toddler sleep and nap schedules for age 0 to 4 years.
Soothing Their Worries
It’s mission critical to be mindful of what we’re saying in front of the kids. Our children will surely struggle with sleeping peacefully if we are exposing them to too much talk and worry about coronavirus.
Turn Off the TV. Put the TV news on a 21-day lockdown. There is absolutely no reason to expose your child to sensational and scary news reporting. If it’s terrifying for you as an adult, then please protect your child. Also, don’t talk on the phone about the gory details of coronavirus in front of your kids. They are always listening and absorbing what you say on the phone. Remember, the beauty of having an early bedtime is that you can watch the news and make your phone calls at night.
Invite Questions. I’ve given simple and honest explanations about coronavirus and the lockdown to my kids. Since their world has drastically changed from school, playdates and sports to 24/7 at home, I do check in with them once a day. I simply ask “do you have any questions for me?” Most of the time they don’t, but they know that the lines of communication are open. They know it’s safe to have questions. If we can help our children process their concerns in the day, they will better be able to relax and surrender to sleep at night.
Manage Your Own Triggers. To help your child’s anxiety, you have to manage your own. For me, that means having an extra loaf of bread and the freezer and an ample supply of chocolate. It means not looking at Whatsapp while I’m playing with the kids because the news is too triggering. It means talking to a friend when I’m feeling scared or anxious so I can work through it, but not in front of the kids. It means focusing on what I can control — staying home, washing my hands. And letting go of what I can’t control — the actions of others, how long this will last.
Empowering Messages. Since the kids understood from their school friends that coronavirus is a big, scary thing, I have focused on what our family is doing to stay healthy. They know that children are mostly not getting sick from coronavirus, but I’m sure they’re scared about their parents getting sick. I tell the kids — I eat healthy food, I exercise, I take vitamin C and I sleep well. I’m strong and healthy. I’ve assured them that if I do get sick for a few days, my body will fight the virus and bounce back.
Honour Ambiguity. We are on a 21-day lockdown, but there is no guarantee that it will end there. This is an ambiguous situation. Please don’t get your heart set on having freedom on April 15 and then feel crushed if it doesn’t happen. When my 5-year-old asks how long we’ll be at home, I tell her the truth — I don’t know. It may be 21 days, or it may be 100 days. You may also want to consider the possibility that this could be a long road ahead, so that you’ll also be able to emotionally support your children in the weeks ahead.
Love Them Up. I tell the kids every single day that I love being at home with them. That this is such a special time for our family to be together. That there is no one I’d rather be stuck home with. You may be spread thin and stressed out of your mind, but don’t underestimate what a gift it is for your children to have bonus time with their parents.
So there you have it — create a flow for your daytime routine, enjoy cozy bedtime snuggles, and protect your children from nonstop coronavirus conversation. In doing so, we can create a virtuous cycle where our kids feel good during the day and sleep peacefully at night, thus boosting their physical and emotional resilience. For all the essential workers on the front lines of this crisis, endless thanks for your service. For all the rest, please stay home, stay safe, take care of each other and wash those hands!
The writer is an American sleep consultant living in Mumbai. She is a holistic nutritionist and author of book Sleep, Baby, Sleep, published by HarperCollins