Children usually lead very energetic, busy lives regardless of their age. But their growing bodies and developing minds require a healthy sleep pattern to be able to function properly. Good sleep comes with numerous benefits. If, for example, you have a preschooler or a primary school-aged child, a good night’s sleep is found to help improve executive functions, like paying attention and planning, as well as better performance in languages and math – subjects that are key predictors of later academic and learning success. Unfortunately, a recent survey has shown that 6 out of 10 children don’t get enough sleep, which can lead to bad moods, concentration issues, temper tantrums, reduced immune system, behavioral problems, and more. Here is why this is, and how you can make sure your little ones get the best sleep quality possible.
Sleep & Your Child’s Health: How Do They Relate?
A sleep deprived child may demonstrate:
A child that is getting less sleep than required generally has a significant change in their behaviors, compared to the norm. They can often become much more prone to tantrums, and be moody and irritable. Also, studies have found that sleep deprived children are more likely to suffer from ADHD, depression, or anxiety. Considering the fact that the foundations of lifelong health, including emotional and psychological well being, are set in childhood, one can quickly understand the importance of good sleep from an early age.
During sleep, our bodies repair tissues, synthesize proteins, boost muscle mass, and release growth hormones, among so many others. Moreover, lack of sufficient sleep not only in children but also adults jeopardizes the immune system and makes them more susceptible to flu and common colds. Plus, sleep deprived young children are found to be three times more likely to be obese compared to children that get more than 10 hours sleep at night. This is because the body does not have the chance to produce enough leptin, a hormone that prevents us from feeling hungry all the time. Instead, the production of the so-called hunger hormone or ghrelin is increased with lack of sleep.
On to of that, it has been evidenced that sleep deprivation affects the way in which the body processes glucose. Over time, increased blood sugar levels can lead to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, kidney failure, and visual impairment, to name just a few.
From the time a baby is born to when they reach adulthood, they are continuously absorbing information and learning skills at an incredibly fast rate, especially before the 6-year mark (an overwhelming 90% of a child’s brain development happens before age 5).
To be able to learn effectively, it is paramount to provide the brain with a certain amount of sleep to consolidate memories and learn the task that have been completed through the day. This means that the quality of sleep a child gets can determine their abilities to learn effectively. What is more, there is an association between sleep deprivation, lack of concentration, and poor grades at school.
When we feel tired, all of us are usually more moody and cranky. So are our children when lacking sleep. Not getting enough (good) sleep increases their stress levels through amplified aggression and anxiety. Although sleep is not found to completely eliminate stress and anxiety, quality sleep indeed improves readiness to deal with these negative emotions.
That aside, we have already mentioned above that while we are asleep, the brain consolidates and processes memories. This helps children remember the most significant things in life. In contrast, lack of sleep does not allow the optimal function of the brain neurons, which impairs focus, problem solving, and more.
Amount of Sleep a Child Should Get
Newborn (0-3 months)
Depending on the infant, a new born baby will sleep between 10 and 18 hours a day in an irregular schedule. At this stage, sleep depends on whether the infant wants to be fed, nurtured, or changed (or other physical instincts) and you should normally expect them to be awake 1-3 hours at one time alone.
At such young age, sleep is lighter (babies mostly sleep in the REM-Rapid Eye Movement stage) and much more easily disrupted – REM sleep is incredibly important for the newborn’s brain development. During these first three months of a baby’s life, the newborn bonds with the mother, learns face recognition, and forms their first social interactions; lack of sleep can affect these interactions, and consequently their social bonds in their childhood and adult years.
Infant (4-11 months)
Your infant should be sleeping at more regular times by now, even through the entire night, with a couple of 2-hour naps during the day and about 9-12 hours at night (usually) being the norm. It is the stage where they develop their social skills. Nevertheless, these social situations can keep the brain overly alert and eventually cause sleep to be disrupted. But, infants that feel attached to their parents and secure are found to sleep better and have better sleeping patterns overall, which is critical to their emotional development.
Toddlers (1-2 years)
A child around this age usually needs between 11-14 hours of sleep every day with perhaps only one nap. At this stage, children’s social, cognitive, and motor skills speed up. Plus, they are becoming more independent. All these new situations usually make toddlers over enthused and can affect their sleeping pattern. More than often, they refuse to sleep. Losing out on quality sleep, though, makes them irritable and moody, negatively affecting their behavioral skills and their future progress. To ensure your toddler enjoys a happy sleep routine and has better quality sleep, it is important to maintain a stress-free, yet consistent, regular bedtime routine.
Pre-schoolers (3-5 years)
The amount of sleep hours pre-schoolers get reduces to 11-13 hours (night sleep) and potentially one nap during the day. At this age, children’s imagination usually runs wild, sometimes causing them nightmares that can disturb their sleep and lead to sleep-related anxiety, and eventually lack of sleep. To reduce the child’s sleep-associated anxiety and allow for its optimal behavioral and cognitive development, it is paramount to have a relaxing and stress-free sleeping environment, with soft colors and nice sounds.
School Children (6-13 years)
Napping has stopped by now. School-age children need approximately 9-11 hours of sleep per day. This is a very sensitive age as children are still learning behavioral and social skills. But, it is also a stage that most children get involved with things like tablets, TV, smartphones, and the internet, which can have a detrimental effect on their sleeping patterns, especially when children are allowed to use them before bedtime or for prolonged time during the day. This is why we often see children literally struggling to sleep and developing sleep disorders, which, in turns, can cause ADHD and other behavioral problems. Keeping a routine sleep regime is key here.
Signs of a Sleep Deprived Child
- Irritable mood.
- Anger for no apparent reason.
- Child acting out.
- Quieter than usual.
- Lack of energy.
- Excessive yawning.
- Catching more bugs or colds than usual.
- Harder to awaken in the morning.
- Demonstrate more difficulty concentrating.
- Inadvertent napping (fall asleep spontaneously during the day).
How to Help Your Child Sleep Better
- Watch their sugar intake – Sugar is a hyperactive ingredient that will not help get your child to bed.
- Limit stimuli before bed – Anything interactive or colorful can keep the brain alert and active – not exactly what you want just before bedtime. Forbid watching TV, playing games, chatting to friends, and using modern technology an hour before gong to bed. Instead, they can take a warm bath or listen to some relaxing music.
- Establish a sleep routine – This will make it easier for the child to fall asleep (it helps maintain the internal clock’s circadian rhythm).
- Educate your child – Make them understand the importance of sleep for their brain and body (and their overall wellness and health). Using rewards charts is a nice way to get them involved (great option for older children). For example, the child can get a reward every time they sleep in their own bed all through the night. However, try not to overdo it with stars and stickers. It should not be too difficult for the little one to get their reward. Otherwise, chances are you won’t reinforce the behavior you expect.
- Don’t enforce their false idea of sleep – Older children usually feel that they can only sleep if you lay down with them. For that reason, they either come to your bed or have you sleep with them, at least for a little while. And, when they wake up in the middle of the night and see that you are not there, you know that they will either come to you or call you to go back to them. Falling asleep with your kid every single night will not do the child (or you) any good. They need to get rid of the idea that you have to be there so they can sleep.
Clearly, sleep plays a crucial role in the development and health of a child, and, in many cases, affects their adult life. Establishing a consistent sleep pattern and making sure the child gets enough sleep for their age, will undeniably help grow healthy, happy, and successful members of the society.