Getting kids to sleep in summer is hard as hell not only because their schedules are looser and more negotiable (a fact they figure out pretty early), but because the sun is out long, extended hours of light. For parents, this can feel like a real punch in the gut from Mother Nature, who apparently doesn’t care if kids don’t get to sleep at a reasonable hour. Fortunately, this is a relatively easy problem to solve. Helping a preschool-age child get to sleep while it’s still light outside, though, isn’t necessarily as difficult as it might, at first, appear.
Kids love routine, and their bodies are conditioned to react to certain stimuli. And the stimulus of simply going through the motions of a bedtime routine can cause them to get sleepy. That’s true even if the sun’s still shining.
“We can train the brain to do the same thing over and over again with the same cues. Keeping those cues consistent makes other things like temperature or noise level or light level less important,“ says Dr. Andy Bernstein, a pediatrician based in Evanston, Illinois. “The most important thing for sleep in anyone — kid or adult — is consistency.”
Repeating a consistent bedtime routine can combat all kinds of outside stimuli, from light creeping through the blinds to the sounds of other children playing outside. The body simply goes into a slowly descending state of relaxation as the routine is executed.
“You have dinner, you go play a little, then brush teeth, read a story … all those things are giving cues to the kiddo’s body that it’s time to start getting ready to sleep,” says Bernstein.
How to Get Your Kid to Sleep During Summer
- Start sleep training with a baby in the winter and finish by 6-months old so that the kid develops a routine.
- Keep strictly to the routine both in terms of time and steps that are completed.
- Create a false sunset hour by winding down activity in the house and slowly drawing curtains and shades.
- Turn off screens at least an hour before bed.
- Use white noise to drown out noises like older kids playing outside.
It’s essentially lights out, even when the light is shining. After all, children take naps during the day without issue (well, usually). But at preschool age, many kids stop napping altogether. Bernstein says parents should maintain quiet time in lieu of naps, and expect to work a little harder with a kid who might be exhausted by day’s end and thus a little more irritable.
“In the case of a toddler sometimes what makes it worse is they’re at a normal age when their natural body rhythm drops from two naps to one nap, or one nap to no nap,” Bernstein says. “Even if they’re exhausted and they clearly needed an extra nap, small things like light can throw bedtime off.”
That puts a little extra onus on parents to intensify the cues, creating something of an indoor sunset where things just gradually slow down.
“You can’t just take them from bright light and suddenly close the shades. You have to start a process by closing the blinds or being more mellow, anything that might stimulate them more you don’t want to do,” says Bernstein, adding that he recommends that parents eliminate screen time an hour before intended bedtime.
For kids who are a little more sensitive, parents can use blackout blinds for the light and drown out the sounds with noise machines or fans.
More clutch, Bernstein says, is starting in on an established routine early in life and playing the long con. The earlier a parent starts with sleep training, the more successfully a child will be in following a routine. Which is to say, a parent should start training a baby in the winter if they want them to maintain a bedtime in the summer. And start training a baby to sleep at a certain time if they eventually want them to sleep at the same time when they are a toddler.
“Good sleep for all of toddlerhood and early childhood comes down to good sleep routine when kids are infants,” says Bernstein. “Teaching a kiddo by the time they’re 6 months old how to settle themselves to sleep is going to have rewards for years and years. It’s an investment. If you do it right, you can get the kids to sleep then go to the patio and have dinner and a glass of wine.”