Help is on the way for sleep-starved parents of children who struggle to keep their eyes shut at the end of the day.

The online Better Nights, Better Days study is recruiting Canadian families to teach behavioural strategies that increase the chances of children sleeping well (and letting parents sleep). 

Penny Corkum, a psychologist and professor of clinical psychology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, is the principal investigator for the study. She says the free course will help some families sleep better, and their feedback will help Corkum's team improve the program.

Hoping to sign up 500 families

"We're trying to recruit 500 families across Canada to help us evaluate this online intervention," she told CBC Nova Scotia's Information Morning on Tuesday. "About 85 per cent of children will respond to these interventions."

Corkum says pediatric insomnia means kids have difficulty falling and staying asleep.

"For a long time we've known what helps children with insomnia — which is about 30 per cent of the population — but we haven't been able to deliver that intervention because parents can't always go to doctors and access that information," she says.

The new website aims to fix that gap. To be eligible, you must:

  • Live in Canada.
  • Have a child aged one to 10.
  • Have regular access to high-speed internet and email.
  • Read and write French or English.
  • Have a child whose sleeping problems have lasted longer than one month.
  • Not want to co-sleep.

Also, your child must not have been diagnosed with a significant medical disorder, such as epilepsy, developmental delay or ADHD. (See the full criteria here.)

Corkum thinks some people are "more biologically prone" to having problems with their sleep-wake cycle, but recommends starting with behavioural remedies. Too often kids get medication for sleep problems, but then have to deal with side effects, she said.  

Also, the behaviour causing the sleep troubles may go unaddressed. 

'We have to slow down'

The five-session intervention spreads over 10 weeks.

It starts with information about what sleep is, how it works and how sleep problems develop. Next, you'll learn healthy sleep practices and how doing things differently in the day affects sleep habits at night.

The key is a good "wind down" routine. "We can't watch TV or play video games and then crawl in bed and expect to sleep. We have to slow down our system and move toward darkness," Corkum said.

Instead, parents should darken and calm the home at bedtime, which will get brains releasing melatonin and preparing for sleep. 

When a child goes to bed, but cries and fusses a lot, Corkum says parents make their lives harder by racing in to sooth them. "We're going to only respond to them on a set schedule so we're not reinforcing that crying behaviour. Often, we inadvertently reinforce the wrong behaviour," she says. 

Setting a good sleep schedule

If your eight-year-old child needs to get up at 7 a.m., they should go to bed at 9 p.m. "About 10 hours is the right amount of sleep for most elementary school-age children," Corkum says. "For adolescents, it's about nine hours."

​Session three teaches kids to fall asleep by themselves at naptime and bedtime. Session four focuses on helping kids put themselves back to sleep after waking up at night and deals with kids waking up too early.

The last session reviews the course and develops a plan for the future.

Corkum says better sleep leads to better behaviour, better mood, and improved school results.

Parents might find themselves slumbering better as well.