Updated: Sep 13, 2019
Sleep Specialist Kate Bridle offers advice on how to ensure your child is getting enough sleep.
For children, getting enough sleep, as well as getting good quality sleep, is crucial. There is a reason why, when a baby is born, it spends the majority of it’s 24 hour day sleeping. It is only during sleep that we release growth hormones to physically grow, and it is when we sleep that we develop and strengthen neural connections to allow us to develop mentally and learn new skills. Not only that, but sleep is our master regulator. It is when all of our internal systems are re-calibrated. When we don’t get enough of it, or we have interrupted sleep, we can’t regulate anything optimally (as many mum’s reading this will know) from our emotions, to our body temperature, to our appetite and the type of foods we crave.
Children are particularly sensitive to even slight amounts of sleep deprivation, and even 30 minutes deprivation per night will result in significant behavioural changes during the day. This is due to them being unable to regulate certain hormones, those which regulate mood and emotion, as well as concentration levels, and energy levels when they do not get enough sleep. Unlike adults, when sleep deprived children often become hyperactive, and this often creates a vicious cycle of them being unable to get to sleep at a reasonable hour, leading to further sleep deprivation. In fact, the symptoms of sleep deprivation in children are almost identical to the symptoms seen in Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It is therefore essential that if your child is displaying any of these symptoms - impulsiveness, problems focusing, mood swings, hyperactive behaviour to name a few, that you first ensure that they are getting enough good quality sleep on a regular basis.
School aged children need a minimum of 10 hours sleep, many need closer to 12 hours, until they start reaching early teenage years when 9-10 hours is usually sufficient. There is very little variability between young children as to how much sleep they need as a minimum and it is extremely rare to find an exception to the 10-hour rule wherever you go in the world. The other big factor is to ensure that the hours during which they sleep are kept regular every day of the week, including weekends. At weekends, children are often allowed to stay up later, and ‘sleep in’ the following morning. This, as far as our sleep and body clock is concerned, is a major disrupt-er at this young age, and shifting their body clock even by one hour at weekends can produce the same sleep deprivation symptoms.
To ensure that your child is developing healthily, and happily, parents need to be the ones that set the boundaries around sleep and stick to them. Knowing how important it is, there should be very little wiggle room. Children always respond better when they know the rules. Be consistent with your little one about bedtimes, and talk to them about the importance of sleep. Be positive when you talk about it, to encourage them to think of it as a positive thing that helps us grow and makes us happy.
Here are some tips to help ensure a calm and relaxed bedtime:
Set and stick to a consistent bedtime routine, including calming activities that your child enjoys. This routine, which ideally should last around 30 minutes, will act as a ‘cue’ for your child's brain to know when it’s time to prepare for sleep. If, from reading this you have realised that your child is not getting enough sleep, then try gradually moving their bedtime forward by 15 minutes every 4 days, moving the bedtime routine with it. It takes some time for the body clock to adjust to a new schedule, so suddenly moving bedtime one hour earlier would result in a one-hour battle with a non-sleepy child! If your child experiences any anxiety, introducing a 5-minute talk time into the routine, discussing positive things, like their favourite thing that happened today, and what they are most looking forward to tomorrow or this week, can help.
Strictly stop all technology use two hours before bedtime and keep the lighting low from dinnertime onwards. This includes if you child has a bath before bed, avoid turning on the often harsh bathroom lighting and, instead, just use the shaving light, or even some candles. Bath time is still allowed to be a fun time for children, but they are extremely sensitive to light, which is our main body clock regulator, and it will negatively affect their Melatonin (sleepy hormone) release which happens in the hours running up to bedtime.
It is completely normal for children to resist bedtime at certain ages, they have a fear of missing out and often want to continue having fun with their parents or siblings late into the night. Be firm and consistent with the rules, if you allow them to stay up on one occasion, they will always try to push it on future occasions knowing that they have a chance of winning you over.
Lastly, ensure that your child is getting plenty of physical activity and exposure to daylight earlier in the day. This helps increase their ‘sleep drive’ and their melatonin levels later in the evening. Being physically tired is an important driver for good quality sleep.
Remember that symptoms of sleep deprivation will take a number of weeks to improve once they are sleeping better, so stick with it! If you are still continuing to have problems getting your little one to initiate or stay asleep at night, then it is time to seek help from your paediatrician or a sleep professional.
Kate Bridle is a Sleep Specialise available through Central Health Medical Practice.