Dear Addie: My 9-year-old is a total night owl. I have to drag her out of bed every morning for school, and she’s grouchy and exhausted. But then every night, regardless of how tired she was all day, she catches his second wind and is ready to stay up all night! How can I teach her to go to sleep earlier and get a good night’s sleep, especially during the school week? —Sonya
Dear Sonya: Thanks for your note. I, too, have a child who’s a night owl—perhaps every family has one? When I go to check on the kids before I go to bed, usually around 10 p.m., he’s almost always still awake. And that’s during the school week! Weekends can be even later because we let them stay up a little bit later. So what can you do about it?
Well, it’s my philosophy that children are built the way they’re built. That is to say, once a night owl, always a night owl. Some people are late-nighters whereas others are early to rise. I believe it’s an innate feature that varies from person to person. So while I don’t think you can actually change your daughter’s built-in preference for late nights over early mornings, there are definitely some things you can do to encourage her to drift off to dreamland a little bit earlier.
The most effective tool I’ve found is melatonin. A friend told me about it when she began using it for her daughter, also a night owl. I asked my pediatrician about it, she gave the greenlight to use it temporarily, and I began giving it to my son that night. He fell asleep about 10-15 minutes after he took it. Our bodies naturally make melatonin, but sometimes when our sleep cycles get off kilter—perhaps due to a new school, stressful situations, heavy workload—we need to give it a little help to get things back on track. I gave it to my son for about a week and it worked: he got used to the earlier bedtime. But old habits die hard, and we still sometimes have to give him melatonin when he falls back into his late-night cycles.
Where things get dicey with melatonin—or rather, where experts grow concerned about its use in children—is when parents use it as a sleep aid on an ongoing basis for their kids. The concern is that not only have children been able to sleep unaided for centuries prior to this (i.e. why do they need help now?), but also that there are no long-term clinical studies that have been conducted to determine how supplemental use of the hormone may interact with other hormones in a child’s body.
If you’re interested in trying melatonin, put in a call to your pediatrician and get a professional’s approval first. If you’re not interested in melatonin, there are a few basic suggestions that may help curb the late nights. These include:
- Move the bedtime up by about 30 minutes so that the wind-down period starts earlier
- No sugar or caffeine within six hours of bedtime
- No screentime (TV, electronics, etc.) for an hour before bedtime
- No sports/active play for an hour before bedtime
And if none of these suggestions work, it’s time to take a meeting with your pediatrician to dig a little deeper. Good luck, and I hope you get some sleep!!
Dear Addie is a wife and mom of three (with one on the way!) who has done her fair share of diaper changing, morning snuggling, boo-boo kissing, cold nursing, lullaby singing, baby rocking, field trip chaperoning and sideline cheering. She believes that there is no degree required to be a parenting “expert.” You just have to roll up your sleeves, dig in, ask the questions, get the answers, and give it your best shot. Oh, and have a whole lot of love and patience on-hand!
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