Carol Ripple, PhD, is Chief Program Officer at Pajama Program, a national nonprofit based in New York City. In this post, she discusses how establishing a bedtime routine for children and ensuring they get enough quality sleep each night can set them on a path to success.
What do children need to thrive? While it depends on who you ask, most of us will readily agree about the basics, such as food, shelter, love, and learning. But one basic is too often left off the list: sleep. Sleep is just as essential to children’s growth and development as nutrition and exercise, but it is often undervalued and overlooked (Dahl, 2007). At Pajama Program, we’re working to change that with tools and information to support a comforting bedtime routine and healthy sleep. We do this by providing pajamas and books, delivering sleep health education for teachers, parents/caregivers, and children ages 2 to 8, and creating caring connections through local and virtual programs.
When we talk about healthy sleep, we consider quantity (getting enough sleep), quality (getting relatively uninterrupted sleep), and consistency (maintaining a consistent sleep schedule). Healthy sleep strengthens the immune system, helps regulate mood, and improves memory and learning. Children who miss out on healthy sleep may be irritable, accident-prone, and have trouble paying attention and learning (Astill, Van der Heijden, Van Ijzendoorn, & Van Someren, 2012). And it’s not uncommon: some studies suggest that 25% of young children are not getting the recommended hours of sleep (Finn Davis, Parker, & Montgomery, 2004). When children are falling asleep at their desk or having trouble paying attention, it’s time to check with parents about sleep before jumping to other conclusions.
A comforting bedtime routine helps children get the healthy sleep they need (Mindell & Williamson, 2018). Children thrive on routines, and caregivers can use bedtime to create a loving, caring end to the day. It’s a great time to share a book! A consistent, comforting routine:
- helps parents/caregivers set a regular bedtime so children get enough sleep;
- helps children transition from activity to relaxation and sleep; and
- is an opportunity for parents/caregivers to have quiet time with their children—time that can be hard to set aside during the day.
Reading is an integral part of a comforting bedtime routine (Hale, Berger, LeBourgeois, & Brooks-Gunn, 2011), and our partnership with Scholastic Book Clubs helps us get books to children who are facing uncertainty. Books are a great bedtime alternative to the screens of all types that permeate our children’s lives—screens that prevent our minds and bodies from preparing for sleep. Sharing a book provides a powerful, soothing connection between caregivers and children, and that connection provides a sense of warmth and security to help children sleep well. Together, pajamas and books are the tools for bedtime that help remind caregivers about the importance of a bedtime routine. By encouraging parents to read to their children at bedtime—for example, by sharing a bedtime reading list—educators can promote this caring connection and support a comforting bedtime routine to help children get more sleep. In addition to these benefits of reading at bedtime, sleeping shortly after reading has been shown to help memory consolidation—it’s great for learning.
Pajama Program partners with over 4,000 community-based organizations across the country, such as low-income schools, Head Start, foster care, and shelters, to support a comforting bedtime routine and healthy sleep. Our program partners tell us how meaningful the pajamas and books are to them, particularly because we pair them together. One explained, “The combination of books and pajamas is effective in reinforcing the bond between parent and child. It gives the child a sense of ownership (especially children in temporary housing or non-traditional settings) and encourages reading.” By framing books as a way to connect parents/caregivers with children, we frame them in a loving context where they become an inviting focus. Some research suggests that reading as part of a comforting bedtime routine helps to create lifelong readers.
Our sleep health education programs aim for impact. Teachers and families tell us they notice a difference after participating: one Head Start teacher observed, “Parents have expressed that bedtime routine has gotten easier…I have noticed that children who used to come to school asleep are awake in the morning with better attitudes.” Research also shows program effectiveness: results show that, on average, our program helped children get 30 minutes more sleep each night.
Children need a good night’s sleep to help them thrive. As an educator, you can help that happen by reaching out to parents to suggest a consistent, comforting bedtime routine that features shared reading. It just might help a student become a star in the classroom!
Astill, R., Van der Heijden, K., Van Ijzendoorn, M., & Van Someren, E., (2012). Sleep, cognition, and behavioural problems in school-age children: A century of research meta-analysed. Psychological Bulletin, 138, 1109-1138.
Dahl, R. (2007). Sleep and the developing brain. Commentary on Touchette et al, Associations between sleep duration patterns and behavioral/cognitive functioning at school entry. SLEEP 30(9), 1213-19.
Finn Davis, K., Parker, P., & Montgomery, G. (2004). Sleep in infants and young children: Part two: Common sleep problems. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 18(3):130-7. doi: 10.1016/s0891-5245(03)00150-0.
Hale, L., Berger, L., LeBourgeois, M., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2011). A longitudinal study of preschoolers' language-based bedtime routines, sleep duration, and well-being. Journal of Family Psychology, 25(3), 423-433.
Mindell, J., & Williamson, A. (2018). Benefits of a bedtime routine in young children: Sleep, development, and beyond. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 40, 93-108.