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Twas the night before Christmas

Maria M. Hadjimarkou, PhD Lecturer School of Psychology University of Sussex

Christmas eve. It is anticipated for months! The house is decorated, the wreath is on the door, and the Christmas tree is gleaming proudly in the living room. Perhaps family visiting, preparations for the great feast on the big day, and Christmas carols blending in with children’s voices. It is a special time of the year for all, but especially for the little ones.

Children all over the world have posted their cards in time, to make sure that the man with the white beard knows what they want.  They prepare a snack for Santa and his reindeer and then they know… and boy they are excited! They know that there is only one thing remaining for them to do. They just have to go to sleep, and the next day will be the day. When they wake up it will be Christmas! The presents will be waiting for them under the tree, the stockings will be filled to the brim with goodies! 

But how can they go to sleep when they are so excited? How can they get themselves to relax and go to sleep when excitement and anticipation are through the roof? When we are excited we are aroused and alert, when sleep necessitates relaxation and de-arousal.

For many parents, this anticipation of the special day may mean trouble around bedtime. They may find it hard to put their children to bed on Christmas Eve, and if they do, they may have a busy night, comforting children who get up and feel too excited thinking about Santa and the presents. The little ones may want to see and chat with Santa (wouldn’t that be cool?).

Is there anything that could help ease the transition from a busy and action-packed day to a smooth bedtime? I will provide some tips to help, although every home situation and every child is different. If you already have a bedtime routine stick to that routine, even on Christmas Eve. It may sound odd because these festive days are all about breaking our routines and doing something more celebratory, but in this case, sticking to your normal bedtime routine will ensure that all the work and conditioning (as we Psychologists say) that has preceded, will be helpful in making this transition. We are creatures of habit, and our brains learn to anticipate events. So, making bedtime a regular routine will be very helpful in this case. If children sleep at about the same time every night, it will be easier for them to go to sleep, even on this night.  Remain faithful to your routine, so if that involves listening to relaxing music or natural sounds, then do use these on Christmas Eve. Read a book if that is what you have been doing. Any deviations from your routine may contribute to more difficulties going to sleep. 

If you have not yet settled on a bedtime routine for your children, the beginning of December is the perfect time to start. Think about your child’s preferences, temperament etc in choosing a bedtime routine which will be most helpful. In most cases, a transition from active, loud and bright activities to more quiet ones, in a dimly lit environment is helpful. Having dinner at the same time every evening and going to bed at the same time is key. An afternoon walk may help the whole family to shake off the stress and arousal that has been piling during the day so walk around the neighbourhood, admire the decorations and de-stress. 

Include the little ones in preparing Santa’s snack, but don’t let that be the last thing that you do before going to bed. Perhaps you can set his snacks before going for your walk, so that when you return home, you can have a warm bath and carry on with your bedtime routine, like reading a book or drawing before lights out. Setting Santa’s snack right before going to bed may be stimulating for the child and make it more likely for them to start thinking about Santa coming and eating the snack, and the presents etc. So it may be better to do that before another activity to break that connection. 

A strategy that sometimes works for adults who struggle with anxiety around bedtime, is writing in a diary or a notebook in bed, as a way of unloading thoughts, out of their minds and onto paper. In a similar way, anxious children may benefit from writing or drawing before going to bed, to let some of their thoughts and emotions on the paper, and perhaps enhance relaxation. Breathing exercises or a relaxing massage may also help children who are more anxious, so try these a few weeks before to see whether they can be incorporated into your routine, depending on your child’s response.

Ensure that lights from the decorations are not brightening the bedrooms as this may result in lighter sleep and more awakenings. This tip may make no difference if you have a nightlight on at night, but if there is a change in how much light there is because of the Christmas decorations, be aware of its effects on arousal. We are very sensitive to light, and we can detect even tiny changes in light intensity. Make sure you check that the window blinds or curtains block the decorative lights from outside and all the street decorations.

Temperature is also important when it comes to maintaining sleep, so keep an eye on the room temperature to avoid excess heat. The bedding, as well as the pyjamas all contribute to the temperature of a child in bed, so make sure that it is not too hot for them. Feeling hot may awaken a child in the middle of the night or in the early morning hours. Generally, the optimal temperature for sleep is below 19 (16-18) degrees Celsius. Turning off the central heating at night may do the trick, but try this before the big night, to see how it goes.

And of course, children know that they must be asleep for Santa to come, and parents are going to sleep too, aren’t they? Put on your pyjamas too and get ready for bed parents! (Just don’t fall asleep ) 

Merry Christmas everyone!

Note: Dear readers, thank you very much for your support and input in the past year.

Posted in sleep on Dec 01, 2023