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Sleep easy

Help children sleep faster with a bedtime routine that does not include the use of electronic gadgets

Housewife Fionna Wee used to "play dead" as she lay beside her toddler son to encourage him to go to sleep.

Ms Wee, 38, pretended to sleep for up to an hour each time. Akaash Xavier, who was 13 months old then, would sometimes doze off for just half an hour.

These attempts to make her only child sleep, repeated daily for two naps and night-time slumber, left her "overwhelmed".

"I was completely lost because I felt like his sleep was taking over my life. It felt like I was putting him to bed all day," says Ms Wee, adding that being occupied with Akaash Xavier's demanding bedtime routine ate into the time she needed for other tasks, such as preparing meals.

This common struggle for parents of young children has driven up demand for some children's books about sleep, including most recently, Swedish author Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin's The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep.

 

This bedtime story claims to be "a new way of getting children to fall asleep", using yawns and positive reinforcement techniques. It was a bestseller on Amazon in the United States and Britain in August.

In 2011, exasperated at trying to get his two-year-old daughter to bed, American author Adam Mansbach published a book, Go The F**k To Sleep. Described as a "children's book for adults", it was also a chart- topper on Amazon that year.

For Ms Wee, the last straw was when she found herself crying, together with a sleep-resistant Akaash Xavier, who is now three.

She called in a parenting coach. Ms Cornelia Dahinten, director of The Parent You Want To Be - Conscious Parenting, advised her to cut one of Akaash Xavier's naps and to get him to bed earlier.

It worked like a treat. Her son adjusted to this schedule without complaint "within two days", says Ms Wee, who has been strict about naps because she read parenting books advising that naptime should be reduced only when a child reached 18 months.

Now that her son is older, he is usually in bed by 8pm, with a bedtime routine that includes clearing away his toys, having a shower and reading before lights out.

Having enough sleep is important for children's development.

Associate Professor Stacey Tay, head and senior consultant at National University Hospital's division of paediatric neurology, says: "It is critical for children to develop a good bedtime routine to ensure that they grow up with good sleep habits.... This is to ensure that they have sufficient sleep duration and quality to learn and develop well."

While there are no local standards for sleep duration, the National Sleep Foundation in the US has guidelines such as a sleep range of 11 to 14 hours for toddlers, aged one to two; 10 to 13 hours for preschoolers; and nine to 11 hours for schoolchildren aged up to 13.

"Adequate night-time sleep is essential for children. Afternoon naps should not be counted into the sleep duration for assessing adequacy of sleep," says Prof Tay.

She adds that having inadequate sleep has "wide and far-reaching" consequences for children, such as attention difficulties, developmental and behavioural problems and issues related to growth as well as obesity.

Strategies that can help parents during bedtime include targeting to have a child in bed half an hour before he or she is supposed to sleep.

This would give the child time to wind down with a quiet activity such as reading a story or listening to quiet music, says Prof Tay.

Repetition is key to establishing a bedtime routine. Ms Shelen Ang, head of research and development at charity Focus on the Family Singapore, advises: "Decide on a routine and stick with it. Don't keep changing strategy every few days.

"It is also important to ensure both spouses agree on the routine."

Obstacles to establishing a good sleep routine may include the use of iPads, television and other devices, says Prof Tay. "The prevalence of screen time has eroded sleep quality by preventing children from winding down properly to sleep at night," she explains.

Mr Jeff Cheong, 39, head of an advertising agency, says his youngest child Janneth, five, sometimes asks for the TV or iPad instead of the books that he and his wife encourage their three children to read just before bed. "Digital books for kids are usually interactive and filled with games, which can be distracting. Bedtime reading is supposed to calm children down."

While his general rule is no digital devices on weekdays during the school term, he and his wife, finance analyst Faith Koh, 39, let Janneth watch a few minutes of YouTube now and again. Their other children are Seth, 11, and Beth, eight.

"As working parents, we strive to come back on time to have dinner with the kids and continue working once they are asleep. But it's a luxury to be back on time. Sometimes when we are slightly late, we find that the kids may push the boundaries and still be up reading. We have to nudge and fuss them to sleep," he says.

Mr Cheong, who is also a council member of the Families for Life non-profit organisation, finds that having a bedtime routine for the children benefits the whole family.

"Having a routine demarcates pockets of time for individual family members because we allocate time for each child," he says, adding that he and his wife, who employ a domestic helper, are able to catch up and go for supper or a walk after the kids go to bed.

For housewife Cai Shujia, having a bedtime routine is a way to make her two children feel secure. Grace, six, and Joen, three, have a shower, read or listen to stories, say prayers and share cuddles before bed at about 9pm.

In addition, Ms Cai, 38, and her husband, teacher Chan Cheow Hwa, 40, have a chit-chat session called "couch time", while the children play quietly.

"We want the children to see their parents talking. The most important gift we can give our children is that their parents are doing well together. It gives them security," says Ms Cai, who learnt about the concept of "couch time" at a parenting class.

A resistance to going to bed can signal feelings of insecurity or other emotions in a child, says Ms Cai, who witnessed this in Grace, who generally did not have problems with going to bed before Joen was born.

Because Joen was breastfed and needed a lot of attention, Grace, who was about three then, refused to go to sleep. "She would cling to me and cry and scream if I left her alone," says Ms Cai. "We had to reassure her with attention and love, not just during bedtime."

Even now, after her son falls asleep, she still spends extra time during bedtime talking with Grace to bond and build their relationship.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 18, 2015, with the headline 'Sleep easy'. Print Edition | Subscribe