‘Twas the night before Christmas, and you're desperate to wrangle your kids into bed so you can tackle your still-to-do list. Parents of young children will be familiar with the pre-bedtime dance of trying to get their kids into bed at a respectable hour, and this struggle is amplified on Christmas Eve when there are still gifts to wrap and excitement levels are through the roof.
As a sleep writer and parent of two young children, I’m a pro at getting my kids into bed (and asleep) at a respectable hour on Christmas Eve. How? With a bit of preparation, patience and a sprinkling of luck. The trick is not to be derailed by a late afternoon sugary snack, ensure they’ve had plenty of fresh air and exercise during the day, and to start the bedtime routine nice and early.
This is my failsafe guide to getting my kids to sleep on Christmas Eve, and I'm passing it on to you. Consider it a Christmas present. Let’s get started...
Tire them out
I've learnt that preparing your children for quality sleep on Christmas Eve starts the moment they open their eyes that morning. Open the curtains wide and allow natural sunlight to flood into the room, kickstarting their sleep-wake cycle. Sunlight stimulates the production of the feel-good hormone serotonin, which later gets metabolised into melatonin (the sleepy hormone).
Next up, we get fresh air and physical activity. This might include a trip to the local park for a kick around with a football, or foraging for holly to make a Christmas day centrepiece. Slothing around on the sofa is tempting, especially on a grey, wet December day, but studies indicate that every hour your child is physically active could shave three minutes off of the time it takes for them to go to sleep at night.
Keep sugary snacks to a minimum
There are sugary snacks a-plenty hanging around over Christmas, and if you don’t want your children to go off like a shaken bottle of soda at 6pm, you need to keep those treates to a minimum. I forewarn well-meaning grandparents and family members not to give my kids any candy or chocolate, and I suggest you do the same.
It’s hard to put a blanket ban on sweets entirely on Christmas Eve, so I make sure they don’t eat any candy or chocolate on an empty stomach to keep blood sugar levels stable (and avoid the inevitable sugar highs and lows). I also make sure that any sweet treats or holiday cookies are consumed earlier in the day to give my children's digestive system plenty of time to process the food before bed.
Stick to their normal sleep schedule
I’m not aiming to get my children into bed early, but I am aiming to get my children into bed on time. If you want your child to go to bed earlier than normal, you will need to gradually adjust their bedtime by 15 minutes every night in the lead up to Christmas Eve.
You might be tempted to put your child to bed later than usual so that they sleep in later — don’t, it never works. When children are overtired, they tend to wake even earlier the following morning. This will leave them tired and wired on Christmas morning, which is miserable for everyone.
Personally, I find that sticking to my children’s healthy sleep schedule on Christmas Eve means they fall asleep easily and wake up at their regular time. On the off chance that they do wake up super early, I gently guide them back to bed and explain it’s still the middle of the night.
Give them a warm bath
A warm bath has been scientifically proven to help set both mind and body for sleep, as the temperature drop we experience after getting out of the bath mimics the temperature drop our bodies go through before sleep (our body temperature drops by 0.5 and 1° F (0.3 to 0.6° C) around bedtime).
Like I did when my children were babies, I add a couple of drops of essential lavender oil to the bathwater to help set the scene for relaxation. The natural sedative properties of lavender helps alleviate any agitation and calm the nervous system.
Wind down with a book
Your children are now freshly bathed and, if you’ve followed me so far, excitement levels will be high but they won’t be physically bouncing off the walls. Every household will have their own Christmas Eve traditions, but this is when my family prepares a snack for Santa before leaving it under the Christmas tree (in our house he likes a cold glass of Baileys and a warm mince pie, not forgetting a carrot for Rudolph).
Clean pyjamas and a Christmas film might sound lovely in theory, but the blue light from the TV will hinder melatonin production (the hormone that makes us feel sleepy) and that’s just not a risk I’m willing to take at this late stage in the game on Christmas Eve. Instead, my kids snuggle up in their beds and I read them a book.
Why it's easier to get kids to sleep on Christmas Eve
Ultimately, children want to go to sleep on Christmas Eve because they want the laborious business of being in bed to be over already so they can fast forward to Christmas morning when there will be presents. So hopefully they will be on your side in making sleep happen.
Once you've followed all of the above steps, now is the time for one last sip of water, a last-minute bathroom break and a final fluff of the pillow. There's no legitimate reason left for your little one to get back out of bed. Take a bow, your job is done and (hopefully) a restful Christmas Eve is on the cards for everyone.
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Nicola Appleton is Sleep Features Editor at Tom’s Guide, specialising in quality news content surrounding sleep and wellbeing. Nicola cut her teeth as a journalist in a busy newsroom in Bristol, UK, 15 years ago as part of a team at Britain's largest independent press agency. Since then, her job as a journalist has taken her to the States, to Sydney, and then back to Blighty, where she has written and edited features for a whole host of prominent British and international brands, including The Independent, The Sydney Morning Herald, HuffPost, Refinery29, Stylist and more. As well as tackling the vast topic of sleep, Nicola will be joining the raft of expert mattress reviewers at Tom's Guide, helping steer readers towards the very best mattresses on the market.