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Routine is not a dirty word

Ok so let’s get one thing out in the open, Routine is not a dirty word! I think there is a common misconception that having your child in a routine can somehow be a ‘bad’ thing, It can be seen to only benefit the parent and be seen as cruel or too harsh on the child. The truth is that it is a vital part of your child’s life and having them in a routine helps them be more predisposed to sleep, and why wouldn't you want that for your children? We are going to get into the science of sleep and why biologically it is important to have them in a routine which supports their Circadian System or Circadian Rhythm which in turn actually encourages healthy, restful and restorative sleep.

When I talk routine, I am not talking about a rigorous structured system whereby you feed your child at the exact time daily or place them down for sleep at the same time every single day. But it is important for you to follow a rough schedule each day and the order in which you do things is really important. Giving your child externals cues as in regular feed times, naps and a somewhat structured bedtime can actually assist to regulate your child’s Circadian System or the sleep-wake Rhythm. Next, I will explain some basics on the Circadian System and then explain how we can encourage its healthy development for your child.

The Circadian System is a biological process contained within our bodies that regulates our sleep-wake cycle throughout a 24 hour period, it is a daily cycle of biological activity that helps us stay awake at appropriate times and also helps us nod off to sleep and achieve restful and restorative sleep. This biological system is responsible for neurological pathways throughout our brains that signal the body to release certain hormones at different times of the day. The two most important hormones in this system are Cortisol and Melatonin.

Cortisol can get a bit of a bad wrap and can be seen only as a stress hormone, but did you know that it performs a very integral part of our sleep-wake phase and in keeping us alert? In a healthy functioning, Circadian Rhythm Cortisol naturally rises in the morning to help keep us alert for the daily activity ahead.

Melatonin is the sleep hormone and it is responsible for helping us get to sleep initially and get into a restful and deep sleep. I have mentioned many times before that melatonin is an important part of your child’s life and that this hormone is not secreted unless exposed to the right external cues such as darkness. Melatonin also naturally rises in the early evening around 6-7pm in children and at about 8-9pm in adults.

Healthy functioning Circadian Rhythm of Cortisol and Melatonin

As you can see from this graphic, a normal healthy functioning Circadian Rhythm has a regular flow and ebb of Cortisol and Melatonin at certain times of the day to help regulate our sleep-wake phase. If we can ‘tune in’ to the Circadian System, its hormone production and encourage its healthy development then our children will be more predisposed to sleep, meaning they will sleep better and for longer periods.

Conversely, if we go the other way and do not have any semblance of routine then the sleep-wake phase will be completely out of sync and the body will not be functioning at optimal levels.

So how do we ‘tune in’ to the Circadian System? By using the right external cues we can signal the Circadian System to release the right biological action relating to the specific cue and the time of day. So external cues or Zeitgebers are the most important part of regulating your child’s sleep-wake phase, by creating a routine of the right cues you can encourage the healthy development of the Circadian System and therefore the right biological action throughout the body.

The 3 most important Zeitgebers or external cues are Feeding/eating, daylight (activity) and sleep. By combining these elements into a rough routine you will be signalling the Circadian System to release the corresponding hormone to that particular cue or Zeitgeber.

How does this happen? We are going to get a little bit Science-y here so bear with me. When you are exposed to an external cue at a certain time of the day (say a bedtime wind down routine) a part of your brain called the Hypothalamus recognises this and then sends neurotransmitters throughout the body with a corresponding biological action. So with a bedtime routine, you are giving your child dinner, feeding them, bathing them, winding down for bed, exposing them to a calm, quiet, dark sleep space, and so the Hypothalamus ‘reads’ these cue’s and starts the secretion of the sleep hormone Melatonin. If you then keep your bedtime routine consistent, at a similar time each day, with the same external cues, the Hypothalamus will begin to recognize this consistency and regulate the production of melatonin to the same time each evening. This would be a perfect example of encouraging the healthy development of the Circadian System, providing it with great positive cues to regulate the sleep-wake phase.

Similarly if you have a great daytime nap routine that stays semi consistent at the same time each day, you can also aim to be in line with two biological nap windows that are present during the day. These are at 9-10am and around 12-2pm in the afternoon. Both of these windows allow your child for restful nap times and will be in line with their sleep wake phase and a healthy functioning Circadian System. Now obviously not all children will nap at exactly these times, but it is important to be aware of these two windows when structuring a routine. When completing a sleep assessment I take into account your child’s biological needs, their age appropriate awake time and base a routine specifically for them around all of these elements. It is important that we aim for these nap windows during the day, which will assist our children in gaining really restful and restorative sleep. Specifically aiming for that time of 12-2pm as this is the most restorative time of day for your child to sleep, really facilitating this nap to be the longest of the day is a great way to encourage a healthy functioning Circadian Rhythm.

If you do this with your child's entire day, by instilling a routine with great external cues then your child's entire 24 hour sleep-wake phase will be regulated, it will encourage its healthy development and by far the best part- they will be more predisposed to sleep, they will stay asleep longer and be restored by this restful, deep sleep.

So what do we take from all this Science-based information? Routine is not a dirty word! A routine that is full of consistency, great external cues at the right time of day will actually help our children get to sleep, achieve restful and deep sleep, stay awake and alert for activities and play time and actually have a big impact on their overall mood and behaviour.

By instilling a great routine throughout a 24 hour period you will encourage the healthy development of the Circadian System and make a huge difference in your child's life. I have spoken before about using a holistic guide to healthy sleep habits and this is a huge part of that. I have often helped parents instil great routines for their children which ‘tune in’ to their Circadian Rhythm and after only a few short days nap times become easier, bedtime becomes much less stressful for everyone, nighttime sleep improves and we have also seen a marked difference in the overall mood of the child.

It is important that you keep a routine consistent but that you also allow for some flexibility. It is not sustainable to say that your child needs to nap at the exact same time every day or go down for night time sleep at the same time every night. I don’t advocate for parents to stay at home all day just so their child can nap, or that you shouldn’t go out at night because your child needs to go to bed, you still need to have a life! Having your child out of their daily routine for a day will not cause huge problematic issues, my rule of thumb is this: If you need to go out for two days in a row that’s fine, but just on that third day, try to be home if you can. Or if you have commitments at night like older siblings dancing, soccer practice that’s fine too, but try on that third day to give your child a nice early bedtime and help ride that Melatonin wave at around 6-7pm, allowing them a good nights sleep on that third day.

We need to respect our children's need for sleep, even if your child seems happy to stay awake all day or for long periods of time, we need to understand the detrimental effect this may have on their biological system. If they are not regularly achieving sleep relative to their age they will miss out on so many important functions. Cellular/tissue repair is impaired as well as cognitive function and mood, our memories are not moved from short-term into long-term memory, impairing their learning ability. It really is so important that we respect their sleep needs and allow them to achieve healthy and restful sleep.

If your child is not in a regular routine and you are finding it hard to get them down to sleep, this can also contribute to overtired-ness. When children are overtired the Circadian System ‘fights’ this by secreting Cortisol, their adrenal glands and the sensory system becomes overloaded and they can get into a hyper state. This is normal and it is simply the Circadian System trying its best to keep them alert and awake. The problem with this is that this overtired state can be very hard to ‘switch off’ and makes it very hard for your child to get to sleep. If your child is in this state it also prevents them from getting into a deeper sleep, which can contribute to waking between the hours of 6pm and 11pm. If your child is in a cycle of overtired-ness it can be extremely difficult for them to get to sleep at bedtime and will contribute to very unsettled overnight waking.

It is exponentially important that we combat any possible overtired-ness with a great routine comprised of great naps, positive external cues and an early bedtime to help combat that hyper alert state. We do this by ‘tuning in’ to their Circadian System and respecting their sleep needs.

Important points for the healthy development of the CS are:

• Have a rough routine that is full of great positive external cue’s, trying to keep these at a consistent time each day that is age appropriate for your child

• We want to ‘tune in’ to your child's Circadian Rhythm and encourage its healthy development

• Melatonin naturally rises in children around 6-7pm each night, we want to ride this wave and encourage its secretion with a great early bedtime wind down

• Having your child in a rough routine or schedule is not a bad thing! It actually is an integral part of their healthy biological development

• Having a routine for your child is a biological necessity

• Helping to prevent the Overtired state will ensure your child does not reach sensory overload, when in this zone it actually prevents them from falling asleep and staying asleep

If you would like some help in structuring a routine to facilitate the Circadian System and seeing the benefits it can have for your child, get in contact about a consultation today. Head on over to the contact page and tell me about your current sleep struggles.

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