How to create a screen-free bedtime routine

The message is clear: kids shouldn’t have screen time right before bedtime. The 2016 ParticipACTION Report Card used the term “sleepidemic” to describe a growing pattern of sleep deprivation in Canadian youth.

Excessive screen time is one of the contributing factors, with 76% of kids having more than two hours of screen use per day. If some of that screen time occurs immediately before bed, it can interfere with how much sleep the child gets, as well as his or her ability to fall asleep effectively.

What can parents do to improve their kids’ “sleep hygiene” or bedtime routine? Start by taking a look at your family’s screen use late in the evening. “I routinely recommend that parents work to eliminate screen time as part of their child’s bedtime routine,” says Dr. Nicky Cohen, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist who provides parent education and counselling regarding children’s sleep problems.

Notice that the word used wasn’t “reduce” or “minimize” screen time prior to bedtime. It was “eliminate.” If screen time plays a part in a child’s evening activities, Dr. Cohen advises that it should stop at least 45 to 60 minutes before “lights out.” To achieve this, here are some strategies to create a screen-free bedtime routine:

BE CONSISTENT.

As any parent knows, the process of getting kids ready for bed can sometimes lead to more consternation than calmness. The familiar nightly routines used with toddlers and preschoolers tend to fade away as kids get a little older, but recapturing some of that structure can be beneficial. Set the stage for a good sleep with a predictable series of screen-free tasks such as having a bath, putting on pyjamas, brushing teeth, reading a story, and so on. If you can, start the routine at the same time each night, as research supports the benefits of a consistent sleep schedule.

HOLD YOUR GROUND.

The great thing about setting limits on screen time – and keeping to them – is that it quashes the possibility of kids debating, negotiating, or begging for more. Be firm with your kids, and feel secure in the knowledge that by halting all high-tech activities at a certain time, you’re giving everyone a chance at a more restful night and a better day tomorrow. And, don’t expect kids to be able to independently manage their screen use. You likely know from personal experience how easy it is to get caught up in watching one more episode, continuing a game or clicking on the next YouTube video. Be the parent and press the “off” button when it’s time.

KEEP DEVICES “OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND.”

My family’s iPad is kept in a closed kitchen cupboard. Initially, it was to prevent it from getting knocked over or spilled on, but it has been a handy way to manage our kids’ screen time. Because they don’t see it, they don’t instinctively ask to use it. Move your devices to a less visible spot and place long-forgotten toys, board games and art supplies in plain sight as alternate evening activities.

USE MOOD LIGHTING.

One of the problems with screen use before (or in) bed is that the light and stimulation from the glowing screen tells the brain to remain awake, instead of winding down. “It is important that the end of the bedtime routine take place where the child sleeps and for low-level lighting to be used,” says Dr. Cohen. Swap the screen for some personal interaction, and dim the lights to signal that sleep time is near. Some of my favourite nighttime moments with my kids happen when we’re reading together by the light of a small table lamp or having a quiet chat in the dark before saying goodnight.

CREATE A WELCOMING SLEEP ENVIRONMENT.

The bedroom should be dark and quiet, with a temperature on the cool side of comfortable. A stuffed animal makes a soothing companion and gives kids something to look forward to when they’re snuggling under the blankets. To avoid potential distractions and disruptions, Dr. Cohen’s advice is to keep all electronics out of the child’s bedroom – this includes a computer, TV, video game system or mobile device. A regular pre-bedtime practice could be to plug in the device or place it in its charger, away from the child’s room. It’s a nice parallel to the child having a good sleep and recharging his or her battery, too.