Is bedtime a bad word at your house? Do your kids fight sleep like trained ninjas? Does the tuck-in process leave you tuckered out? If bedtime is a battle, night after night, sleep cues may be your ticket to success.

Just what is a sleep cue? Called “sleep onset associations” by medical professionals, sleep cues are the building blocks of an effective bedtime routine. When used consistently, sleep cues tell the brain that it’s time to slow down and rest.

With a few tweaks to your evening rituals, you can create powerful sleep cues that will help everyone wind down and relax—even older kids who shun lullabies and bedtime stories.

From the age of 6 months, children can develop associations between certain events or objects and falling sleep. “We see this in animals and humans,” says sleep expert Susan Rausch, M.D. “Babies and young kids learn that certain things in a certain sequence lead to sleep. Basically, A plus B plus C plus D equals sleep.”

If this sounds like your kind of math, read on. These scientifically proven cues will help your brood wind down, feel sleepy and actually want to go to bed.

Cue 1: Made in the Shade

According to sleep specialist Roslinde Collins, M.D., a dark bedroom is important to healthy rest. But darkness also plays a major role in sleep preparation; it cues the brain’s production of melatonin, known for regulating biological rhythms and helping us feel sleepy.

Make it work for you:

Create a peaceful, sleep-inducing atmosphere by dimming the lights after dinner. Stumbling around in the dark isn’t necessary; just draw the shades and turn off unnecessary lights about an hour before bedtime. Collins recommends turning off or covering all light sources in the bedroom, including lighted clocks, electronic toys and screens.

Cue 2: Sound of Music

For an easier bedtime, make some noise. Consistently using sound or music near bedtime creates a positive sleep association that cues relaxation. Whether you choose classical music, rainforest sounds, ocean waves or plain old white noise, the type of sound is less important than using it repeatedly. Over time, the sound will signal to your child’s brain that sleepytime is near.

Make it work for you:

To incorporate noise into your bedtime routine, simply choose any type of sound you and your family find soothing. Sound should be used early in the bedtime routine, says Rausch. Play soft music or white noise 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime for a subtle yet effective cue that it’s time for sleep.

Cue 3: Nighttime Nosh

A bedtime bite to eat banishes hunger and provides an important sleep cue that kids learn to associate with bedtime. Depending on what kids eat, snacks may help them fall asleep faster, too. When paired with complex carbohydrates, tryptophan-rich foods like meat, dairy, soy or nuts can help kids feel sleepy—the insulin spike that follows carbohydrate consumption helps tryptophan enter the brain.

Make it work for you:

Serve a healthy snack about an hour before bed. Consider tryptophan-carbohydrate combos like whole-grain cereal and milk, oatmeal cookies and cocoa, whole-wheat crackers and cheese or sesame seeds sprinkled on half a peanut-butter sandwich.

Cue 4: Smells like Bedtime

Ancient folklore and modern science are in agreement about the calming effects of scents. Lavender aromas have been proven to slow the nervous system and promote deep sleep. German researchers recently proved that the scent of Gardenia jasminoides has a powerful sedative effect. When used near bedtime, a soothing scent signals to your family that the day is over (and it makes your house smell great, too!).

Make it work for you:

Incorporate scent into your ritual by simmering water infused with essential oils or vanilla extract, plugging in a child-safe scent diffuser or (carefully) lighting a scented candle.

Cue 5: Sleep Security

Security objects like special blankets or stuffed animals are powerful sleep cues, says Rausch. Sleep specialists call these items “transitional objects” because they ease the transition to slumber. They’re often the last element of a bedtime routine and remain with the child as she drifts off to sleep.

Make it work for you:

According to Rausch, the ideal transitional object is one the child controls himself. Snuggling a stuffed toy is good, she notes, because a child can do this throughout the night as needed without getting up or waking others. Pacifiers, books, music and well-loved toys all work well, as long as a parent isn’t called on to locate it, wind it up or turn it on in the middle of the night.

Keeping sleep cues simple is the key to their success, says Rausch. “Parents need to think about what they can realistically do, every night.”

Try a few cues on your kids and see what magic unfolds. When bedtime is a breeze, you’ll actually enjoy it. And, once the kids are asleep, you’ll have energy left over for that pile of laundry.

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist, sleep coach and mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.



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