Health Tips & Articles

Sleep and Children

by Alison E. Wondriska, MD

All humans need sleep to survive and, while it seems like we are doing nothing during sleep, sleep is a very busy time for the brain.  We also know that most children do not get enough sleep.

Studies have shown that, if children do not get enough sleep, they have more problems with learning, memory, attention span, and behavior. It is also known that irritability and poor social skills are worsened by lack of sleep.  In addition, the ability to make good decisions and safe choices can be more difficult for a sleep-deprived child. Finally, a child’s ability to fight sickness and to maintain healthy body weight can be affected by lack of sleep. In short, think of a good night's sleep as recharging your child's battery in preparation for proper functioning the next day.

Our bodies are naturally wired to want to sleep at nighttime. This is regulated by melatonin, a chemical our brain manufactures that helps to make us sleepy. We tend to have cycles of sleep, which repeat throughout the night.  These include NREM sleep, when our heart rate and breathing slow down and our muscles rest as our energy is restored, and REM sleep, when we have rapid eye movement under our eyelids and our dreams are most active.  This REM sleep is the time thought to be most important for learning and memory.

Children need to practice good sleep habits from birth:

  • Newborns need up to 20 hours of sleep per day, should be put down to sleep on their backs, and need time to figure out the sleep-wake cycles. 
  • Older infants need about 12 hours of sleep along with 2 naps per day. It is most helpful to put infants to bed while they are sleepy, but not fully asleep, so that they can practice falling asleep on their own. Never put a bottle in the crib with an infant. 
  • Toddlers and preschoolers need about 12-13 hours of sleep, along with a nap, every day.
  • School-age children need about 10-11 hours of sleep.
  • Teens need about 9 hours of sleep ever night.

Some children can have a sleep disorder which prevents them from getting a good night's sleep.  Such a disorder requires medical attention and should be discussed with a health care provider.

We can help our children to learn better sleep habits.  Consistent bedtime and wake-up times help to establish a routine. 

Younger children benefit most from quiet play after dinner, special parent-child social time, bath-time, story-time and typical good-night rituals.  It is important to follow a routine and to put a child to sleep in his or her own bed.  A bedroom that is cool, dark, and quiet is usually best for sleep. Sometimes, a sound machine or fan can help to cover environmental noises like loud neighbors, dog barking or traffic sounds.

Older children should also "wind down" before bed.  After dinner, they should focus on activities that are pleasant, peaceful and calm; exercise, homework and the use of electronics should be completed before dinnertime.  Teens need to have firm limits on the use of electronics (such as TV, video games, computers and cell phones); stopping the use of all technology one hour before bedtime is a good rule for people of all ages.  The avoidance of caffeinated products such as soda, coffee, tea or energy drinks is recommended for all children. 

Stress and anxiety can interfere with good sleep habits and should be identified. The best time to identify this potential problem is not at bedtime but during the day, when your child may feel safer with this kind of discussion. Likewise, heated discussions and arguments are best left for times other than bedtime.

Many times, parents assume that a sleeping medicine will solve a child's sleep problem, but these are generally not the answer.  Such a remedy should never be tried before such a sleeping problem is discussed with a health care provider.

Teach your children that sleep is a priority and needs to be practiced to be successful.  Good night. zzzzzzzzzz.

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