Written By: Danielle Forsyth (Trinityhouse Heritage Hill, Educational Psychologist)
More and more research points towards the importance of sleep for children’s health, academic performance, and behaviour. Although this may seem apparent, many of us actually do not allow our children to get the critical sleep they need to develop and function properly.
It’s certainly not something we do on purpose. But with parents working long hours, packed school schedules, after-school activities, and other lifestyle factors, naps are missed, bedtimes are pushed back, mornings start earlier and nights may be anything but peaceful. Missing naps or going to bed a little late may not seem like a big deal, but it all adds up, with consequences that may last a lifetime.
“Sleep is the power source that keeps your mind alert and calm. It recharges your brain’s battery, increasing one’s brainpower and attention span, as well as allowing you to be physically relaxed and mentally alert at the same time. Then and only then can you function at your personal best.” as stated by Paediatrician Marc Weissbluth.
Signs of sleep-related problems may show up in a number of ways with kids, including daytime sleepiness, weakened immune systems, inattention, poor concentration, moodiness, behavioural problems, weight gain, irregular social skills and poor academic performance. According to Dr Avi Sadeh, a loss of one hour of sleep is equivalent to the loss of two years of cognitive maturation and development.
To understand the critical nature of sleep to our children’s growth and development, let’s take a look at the essentials needed for healthy sleep and what interventions we can put in place in our homes to encourage better sleep routines.
Essentials of Healthy Sleep
Healthy sleep allows for optimal alertness when we are awake. This is the state in which we are most receptive to and interactive with our environment – when our attention span is at its best and the most learning can occur. You can see this in a child who is calm and attentive, pleasant, wide eyed, absorbing everything, and socially interacts with ease. Altered states of alertness interfere with a child’s learning and behaviour.
Healthy sleep thus requires:
- Sufficient amounts of sleep to grow, develop, and function optimally. How much is right for your child varies by age.
- Uninterrupted (good quality) sleep allows good growth and development of the body’s nervous system.
- The proper number of age-appropriate naps optimize alertness, learning and development. Naps serve a different purpose to that of night time sleep, but are as important. Thus timing is essential, making sure they are planned and in sync with your child’s natural biological rhythms.
- A sleep schedule that is in sync with the child’s natural biological rhythms (internal clock or circadian rhythm). This allows for effective restoration and long term memory development, but being out of sync can lead to difficulty falling asleep or simply staying awake. Children then become overly tired and stressed. So it is important your child’s sleep needs are met and that you adjust your schedule to be in sync with theirs. If, over time, any of these essentials are not optimal, symptoms of sleep deprivation and fatigue may occur.
How can we help our kids get the proper amount of sleep?
- Limit bedtime activities- a routine of relaxing activities like reading or listening to classical music can help most children sleep better. Make sure all electronics are removed to avoid further stimulation.
- Establish a sleep schedule- similar to routine activities, experts recommend consistent times to go to sleep and wake, ideally not differing much during the week or on weekends.
- Create a Conducive Environment- children will sleep faster and deeper when the room is dark, quiet and cool.
- Promote Regular Exercise- A minimum of 60 minutes of physical activity for children each day can yield many benefits, including better sleep.
- Limit Caffeine- it’s advisable to limit all forms of caffeine, particularly late in the day, which includes tea, soda and chocolate.
- Avoid late afternoon or Early Evening naps- later naps can result in later bedtimes and less critical sleep for older children.
As parents, it is our responsibility to be sensitive to and protect our children’s sleep, just as we do their safety. We are primarily responsible for their sleep habits so it is important to start healthy ones early; it is much easier to instil good habits than correct bad ones.
Thus infuse the importance of sleep with daily attention to it and you will likely have a happier, self-assured, less demanding, and more sociable child. And who knows, you might just get some more sleep yourself!