Getting kids to sleep is tough for any parent. Getting them to sleep in a world with so much to distract them is even tougher. The devices in our homes and pockets are designed to stimulate, excite and command our attention for as long as possible. Kids need quiet, darkness and nothing exciting going on in order to drift off, something that technology rarely offers. So check out our guide to the things you should do, and what you shouldn’t, to help your little ones get the rest they need.
Do: Limit exposure to blue light
Blue light is a part of the visible spectrum close to UV, which sends signals to our brain that it’s time to be awake. We use this light in its natural form to maintain our circadian rhythms, and in its absence, we know it’s time to sleep. In the redder light of the sunset, our brains know it’s time to produce melatonin, the sleep hormone that helps us get a full night of sleep.
Unfortunately, we don’t stop using lightbulbs, TVs and smart devices just because the sun goes down. The extra exposure to all this blue light suppresses our melatonin production, stretching out the day and compressing the night. It’s bad for adults, but exposing children to blue light has severe consequences for their development.
That’s why it’s important to set clear limits for your older kids so that they’re not watching TV, using mobile devices or playing on consoles in the hours immediately before bedtime. It’s also worth using nighttime filters on all devices and shifting your smart lights to redder hues in the evening to encourage our bodies to switch into sleep mode. There’s a relationship between disrupted sleep and ADHD-related symptoms, which improved when children wore blue-light-blocking goggles.
Do: Use a sleep-training clock
Kids don’t respect the difference between day and night, and they can often wake you up in the middle of the night for no reason. Until they’re able to read and tell the time, they’re often left not knowing why you’re so groggy and/or mad when they call for you at 3 AM. That’s why a sleep-training clock can be useful to help them understand when it’s appropriate to call for you.
These devices often use a combination of simple pictures and colored lights to explain when it’s time to be asleep and awake. And if the lights are bright enough, they can pull double duty as a nightlight to help them feel secure at night. As they get older and can get up on their own, you’ll be able to let them know that it’s OK to quietly keep themselves occupied until you wake up.
Too much TV can harm a child’s development, both by depriving them of human interaction and by exposing them to content they’re not ready for. A lot of people are happy to put their kid in front of YouTube Kids, despite the obvious concerns about the content. A little bit of TV is fine, but it’s probably best not to leave them in front of it for hours.
Young brains need time to wind down and get ready to sleep, which is why kids don’t nod off 10 minutes after TV time ends. Plus, most kids’ TV shows are high energy, which is hardly conducive to creating a calm, sleepy atmosphere. Researchers have shown several times over that there’s a link between evening media consumption and poor sleep.
If you want your kids to sleep, it’s good to turn off the TV at least an hour before you put them down for the night. And it’s probably best not to let them watch hours of TV anyway. Experts say that kids under the age of two should watch nothing at all. Even after that point, researchers believe that your children shouldn’t be given unfettered access to a screen until they’re at least five.
Don’t: Trap your kids in an addiction loop
If you’ve ever wondered why refreshing an app feels a lot like playing a one-armed bandit, blame Loren Brichter. The developer created the pull-to-refresh gesture back in 2008 to avoid adding a dedicated refresh button to his Twitter app, Tweetie. It’s emblematic of a wider trend, as tech products are designed to seduce you into giving them all of your free time.
Social apps, mobile games and even high-price console titles are all designed to create reward loops. Essentially, reward loops are short, easily replicable actions that cause your brain to secrete the “reward” hormone, dopamine. Every time you match three candies on Candy Crush Saga, complete a video game level or refresh your social feed, you’re in a loop.
It’s easy enough for adults to get hooked on these short bursts of dopamine, and we’re always playing just one more level of a game. Now imagine how hard it is for kids, who struggle to control their behavior at the best of times. Much like with TV and mobile-device use more generally, a good solution is to avoid playing games close to bedtime. Set limits, and ideally, avoid kids having these devices in their bedrooms at night until they’re mature enough to be responsible.
All of this is proof that technology can hurt your kids’ sleep if used improperly. Hell, it’s bad for adults, so we could all do with a lesson in managing our screen time responsibly. The best possible thing you can do is minimize your kids’ exposure to technology, especially in the hour or two before bedtime. Whatever the inconveniences, it’ll be worth it when they’re getting to sleep, and letting you do the same.