How to ensure your kids go to sleep at Christmas

Thomas Lynch says five-year-old son Lewis is already very excited.''''Picture Stewart Attwood
Thomas Lynch says five-year-old son Lewis is already very excited.''''Picture Stewart Attwood
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Setting your children a regular night-time pattern well in advance will pay dividends come December 24

ONLY five more sleeps to go and then it all kicks off. But wait... did someone happen to mention “sleep”?

As every parent of an over-excited little person knows, there is no such thing as proper sleep when the countdown is this close to the big day.

For while us grown-ups may well crave the stuff, small folk often just can’t get their little eyes to close and, crucially, stay closed.

Of course it all becomes an even bigger challenge as the light fades on Christmas Eve, the reindeer dust lies sparkling on the lawn, you’ve filled them with Horlicks and dire warnings that Santa won’t come if they’re still awake, and yet still find yourself on your knees at 1am begging them to please, just pretty please, for goodness sake... just go to SLEEP!

And while they fight the sandmen, mum and dad fight each other over whose turn it is next to sing “When Santa got stuck up the chimney” in their quietest, slowest, sleepiest ever voice.

It’s not helped, of course, by the flurry of exciting events that lead up to the big day – Christmas parties and nativity plays, pantomime late nights and trips to Santa’s grotto – all add up to major disruption in small folks’ regular routine.

According to The Sleep Council – specialists in getting vital zzzzs – parents really should have already started laying down the groundwork required to encourage small folk to nod off on Christmas Eve. For they say setting a good, regular sleeping pattern well in advance helps to programme the body into better sleep.

That, however, can be easier said than done, agrees Thomas Lynch, whose five-year-old son Lewis is already showing signs of what can only be described as “Santa-inflicted seasonal sleep dysfunction”.

“He’s very excited,” laughs Thomas, co-founder of father and child playgroup Dads Rock. “He’s usually a really good sleeper but recently he’s been coming downstairs, complaining that he can’t sleep or he’s lost something or he needs the light on. I can’t blame him, I was probably exactly the same at that age.”

Lewis, who’s in P1 at Clermiston Primary School, is 
normally tucked up, sound asleep, by 7.30pm. But Thomas agrees that the busy seasonal events – such as Christmas parties and the school Nativity play, opening his handmade advent calendar to counting down the remaining sleeps to the big day – all conspire to interrupt his normally settled routine.

“We’ve told Lewis that he needs to behave well or else we will have to think about phoning Santa and letting him know,” says Thomas, adding that “Santa” is on standby on Lewis’s grandad’s phone number and has been briefed on how to react to a call.

Meanwhile a plan is already in place for Christmas Eve, when he’ll be allowed one present before slipping into his festive pyjamas, laying out a snack for Santa and Rudolph, then settling down to listen to a gentle reading of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.

According to counselling psychologist Prof Euan Gillon, of Edinburgh-based First Psychology – www.firstpsychologyscotland.co.uk – making sure your child is tired and settled are key to keeping on top of junior’s sleep woes.

“Around Christmas our routines often change, parents are off work, children might be at home because school has finished up, it can be disruptive,” he says.

“One of the most important things to ensure a child gets a good sleep is to make sure they are actually tired. Outdoor exercise and a chance to blow off steam by using up pent-up energy during the day means a better chance of children settling to sleep at night.”

Prof Gillon, who has a seven-year-old son, Ferdie, agrees it can be a challenging time for busy parents, but warns trying to rush an over-excited child to sleep can backfire. “Make Christmas Eve as normal as possible, give them downtime and routine. Have a warm drink, read a story and take time helping them settle – expect the bedtime routine to take around 45 minutes.

“Children use all the tricks in the book to stay up and keep the process going, but parents need to stay calm and avoid getting into a debate or shouting.”

Liberton mum-of-three Tricia Murray, whose postnatal care and consultancy NurtureMe – www.nurturemeedinburgh.com – has just launched, says parents need to ensure they build in downtime for themselves too.

“Parents often aren’t good at asking for help,” she admits. “But asking someone to step in so they can have a rest and relax means they’ll be able to handle it when the children become demanding.”

With five-year-old twins Peter and Victor plus little brother Vincent, three, to juggle, bedtime can be a busy affair even without the added excitement of Santa.

“You have to accept that the normal routine is going to change a little bit. Other times we have to just say ‘no’ – we don’t have to do everything at this time of year.”

But, she adds, perhaps we’re too keen to wish our little ones off to sleep so we can get on with what we have to do.

After all, the wide-awake excitement in little ones’ eyes as they watch the skies for Santa’s sleigh is all too quickly replaced by teenage indifference, a grunt and a Christmas list that consists of little other than “money”.

“I’m actually looking forward to it all,” she laughs. “It’s a magical time that parents should just try to enjoy.”

The Sleep Council has these vital “good night” tips:

• Try to keep regular hours. Going to bed and getting up at the same time, all the time, programmes your body to sleep better.

• Create a restful sleeping environment. Keep the Christmas decorations to the other parts of your home – the bedroom should be kept for rest and sleep and it should be neither too hot, nor too cold; and as quiet and dark as possible.

• Remove television and other technology from the bedroom too.

• Make sure the bed is comfy. It’s difficult to get deep, restful sleep on one that’s too soft, too hard, too small or too old. If your bed is seven years old or more - then it could be time to hit the sales on Boxing Day and buy a new one.

• Exercise such as swimming or walking can help - but not too close to bedtime or it may have the opposite effect.

• Have a hot milky drink and avoid too much food late at night.

• Settle down with a warm bath and quiet time.

• Resolve any arguments or conflicts before bed.