We all know that getting enough each night is important. But, it is critical for children who are still developing mentally and physically. In fact, research published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry has found that inefficient sleep can harm a child’s mental health.
"After sleep restriction, we observed changes in the way children experience, regulate and express their emotions," said Candice Alfano, University of Houston professor of psychology and director of the Sleep and Anxiety Center of Houston. "But, somewhat to our surprise, the most significant alterations were found in response to positive rather than negative emotional stimuli."
"Studies based on subjective reports of emotion are critically important, but they don't tell us much about the specific mechanisms through which insufficient sleep elevates children's psychiatric risk."
In other words, poor sleep might "spill over" into a child’s daily social and emotional life. "The experience and expression of positive emotions are essential for children's friendships, healthy social interactions, and effective coping. Our findings might explain why children who sleep less on average have more peer-related problems," said Alfano.
The study also found that children with pre-existing anxiety symptoms displayed the most dramatic alterations in emotional responding after sleep restriction.
It goes without saying then that sleep needs to be a priority for your children. But, how can you help them sleep soundly every night? Here are five sleep tips that you can try with them.
1. How much sleep do children need?
This depends on factors including their age and their stage of development. The National Sleep Foundation does offer the following guidelines, however:
Newborns 0 to 3 months should sleep 10 1/2 to 18 hours a day, but they don't have a regular schedule. They may sleep from a few minutes to several hours at one time.
Babies 4 to 11 months should start to sleep through the night, for 9 to 12 hours at a time. They should also take naps throughout the day, ranging from 30 minutes to 2 hours.
Toddlers 1 to 2 years need about 11 to 14 hours a day. Most of this should happen at night, but they should also take a nap (or naps) during the day.
Children 3 to 5 should get 11 to 13 hours a night. Their naps should get shorter and happen less often. Most kids don't nap past age 5.
Kids 6 to 13 need 9 to 11 hours of shuteye. Homework and electronic devices keep kids busy at this age, so it's important to set a sleep schedule and enforce a regular bedtime routine.
Teenagers 14 and up need 8 to 10 hours of sleep. Their circadian rhythms shift around the time they hit puberty, so they may find it hard to fall asleep as early as they used to.
2. Practice good sleep hygiene.
Sleep hygiene is simply healthy habits and behaviors that promote a good night’s sleep. While these can vary from household to household, the most important thing to remember is that you need to be consistent.
Establish a bedtime ritual. “Write up a bedtime ritual,” suggests Adam Seligman, a physician’s assistant in the Stanford Children’s Health Sleep Center. “If you have an infant, it might be as simple as singing a song and turning on the white-noise machine. If you have a toddler or an older child, ask for their input in forming the plan. Let them decide how many books you will read together and when the cuddles will happen (this helps them identify their own settling needs and gives them a sense of control). Next, list the steps in sequence — ‘Put on pajamas, brush teeth, read books, cuddle, lights out’— so everyone knows exactly what will happen. For kids that can’t read, use a chart with pictures. Review the plan together before you begin. When a plan is communicated and rehearsed, children are more likely to internalize it and less likely to ask for things that are not on the script,” adds Seligman.
Set a bedtime. Have your child go to bed, and wake-up, at the same time every day -- even on weekends. Ideally, you should syn this with their natural biological clock.
Power down. “Electronic screens are a bad idea before bed because their light stimulates the brain,” states Seligman. “This can make kids feel wired just when they should be resting, and it can also inhibit the production of melatonin and serotonin, the sleepy-time hormones. Ideally, kids should turn off screens at least one to two hours before bed.”
Make sure that they feel safe. Your child can not fall asleep if they scared or worried. To avoid this, make sure that they aren’t consuming content that might frighten them. If they’re afraid of the dark, praise them for their bravery and consider putting in a night light in their room.
Avoid caffeine. Caffeine isn’t just found in coffee and soda. It’s also in tea, energy drinks, and chocolate. They shouldn’t have anything with caffeine in the late afternoon and evening.
Other suggestions would be for them to get physical activity throughout the day, getting plenty of sunlight, and not having them sleep with a pet.
3. Create the right environment.
Next, make sure that their bedroom is set up to help them fall asleep more easily. And, that it keeps them asleep throughout the night. Some recommendations would be:
Keep the room cool by setting the thermostat at around 65 degrees.
Make sure that the room is as dark as possible by investing in dimming and blackout curtains.
Block out distracting noise with noise reducing curtains or a white noise machine.
Using essential oils, such as lavender, that makes them feel calm.
Not letting them have a TV in their bedroom.
4. Reduce worrying before bed.
It’s difficult for a child to sleep soundly if they’re anxious or stressed. You can help them reduce these feelings with relaxing activities as a part of their bedtime ritual. Examples are reading, breathing exercises, or listening to gentle music.
You may also want to have them write in a journal. Or, allocate worry time. During this period of time, they can discuss their worries. But, it shouldn’t be too close to their bedtime.
5. Know when you should schedule a visit with a doctor.
Have you tried all of the above and your child is still not sleeping properly? You may want to make an appointment with your pediatrician or therapist.
Some of the warning signs that you should be aware of are:
Significant daytime sleepiness.
Excessive bedwetting, nightmares, night terrors, or sleepwalking.
Abnormal breathing, like snoring, when they’re asleep.
They’re considering or using medications to help them sleep.