We all need sleep. Without it, our health, mood, and everyday functioning are significantly affected. Sleep deficiency has also been associated with an increased risk of injury in adults, teens, and children.
For children, adequate sleep is especially important. They require more sleep early in life when they are growing and developing. According to the National Sleep Foundation, by age two, most children have spent more time asleep than awake. Of course, the tricky part is getting your child to bed - and getting him to stay there.
Toddlers (aged one to three years) need about 12 to 14 hours of sleep a night. Their frequent restlessness often stems from nighttime fears and nightmares, which can result from several factors: from their drive for independence to increased motor, cognitive, and social abilities to separation anxiety and overactive imaginations.
By preschool (aged three to five years), sleep needs to be reduced a bit to about 11-13 hours a night. But preschoolers, like toddlers, still tend to have trouble falling asleep, commonly waking up in the night.
Older children (aged five to 12 years) require about 10-11 hours of sleep a night. But, unlike younger children, school-aged kids discover increasing demands on their time, like homework, sports, and other extracurricular activities. They are also barraged with a whole new set of stimuli: computers, TV, and other media, as well as caffeinated products. All of these can contribute to poor sleeping patterns, which in turn can severely affect mood and lead to behavioral and cognitive problems.
Learn what you can do to create healthy sleep habits for your child.
1. Avoid Big Meals
Nutritious, hearty meals are good, but you want to avoid feeding kids big meals close to bedtime. Eating too late tends to raise metabolic rate and increases energy in kids. To ensure a good night's sleep, avoid eating dinner at least three hours before your child's bedtime. Include a variety of foods from all of the food groups, and make sure your child gets enough calcium - low levels of calcium can cause irritability and nervousness. Calcium sources for kids include milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, and broccoli.
2. Cut Caffeine
It's unlikely that you're serving your kids cups of coffee. But you may inadvertently be giving them foods or drinks that contain caffeine: soda, ice cream, and maybe even caffeinated gum. Caffeine products, like soda, contain empty calories, and filling up on these prevents kids from getting the necessary vitamins and minerals they need. Additionally, caffeine acts as a diuretic - which means your child will require at least one nighttime trip to the bathroom.
While it's certainly advised to keep caffeine consumption to a minimum, try to avoid giving kids caffeinated products less than six hours before bedtime.
3. Create a Sleep-Only Zone
After dinner, keep kids from participating in any stimulating activities. That means no computers, no video games, no music, and no TV. In fact, TV viewing at bedtime has been linked to poor sleep. And one study found that children who kept electronic devices in the bedroom were more likely to be obese, in addition to suffering poor sleep.
So keep the technology out of the bedroom for better sleep. And that goes for the rest of the house, too - make sure the noise level remains low so your child can easily fall asleep.
4. Establish Bedtime Routines
Keeping to a consistent and relaxing routine before bed can help your child fall asleep easily. Just as you want to steer clear from any overstimulating activities, it's a good idea to stick to more relaxing routines, like a warm bath, cuddling, or bedtime reading. Avoid scary stories or TV shows, which can frighten and overexcite your child's mind. Choose stories to soothe your child's mind and send them off to dreamland.
You also want to watch for the time when your child typically starts to wind down at night - this is the time when they should fall asleep. So, set their bedtime a bit before. If you wait too long, your child may gain a second wind and have trouble falling asleep.
5. Establish Daytime Routines
Just as important as night-time rituals, you want to encourage regular sessions during the day. According to Henry Shapiro, M.D., Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrician at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla., these daytime rituals can help "anchor" your child's sleep times. This includes meals, as well as scheduled play and nap times. And enforcing consistent waking times will also help establish sleep rhythms in your child.
6. Avoid Singing/Rocking to Sleep
This might seem like a nurturing gesture, but you want to avoid singing or rocking your child to sleep. Why? Rocking and holding makes the child dependent on the parent. So if your child wakes in the middle of the night, he may rely on you to sing or rock him back to sleep - a condition known as sleep-onset association disorder. A better bet is to use an object like a stuffed animal or favorite blanket to help your child fall asleep. And if you're already rocking your child to sleep, try phasing out the behavior gradually.
7. Provide a Tool Kit
Provide your child with tools - seriously! A flashlight. A large, comforting stuffed animal for "protection." A spray bottle filled with "anti-monster spray." Be creative. By arming your child with his arsenal of tools, he'll feel better protected and more capable of overcoming his worries.
8. Create a Reward System
Set limits on attention-getting behaviors. Feeding, proximity to interesting toys. These temptations can keep kids up late at night. To help develop healthy sleeping habits, establish a rewards system for each night that your child falls asleep on time and stays there through the night. Rewards can be as simple as stickers or a small prize (of course, you want to bypass sugary treats). Whatever the reward, the goal is to promote healthy nighttime sleeping behavior.
9. Ease Separation Anxiety
This one goes out to the little ones. Around six months, a fear of being separated from parents starts to surface in infants and can trigger sleep problems. To help ease anxiety, spend 10 to 15 minutes with your baby before bedtime, so you can establish your presence in the nursery. Once you place your baby in the crib, don't dash off right away. Continue to spend a few more minutes talking softly or gently stroking your baby. By establishing your presence and remaining while your baby becomes comfortable with his surroundings, you can help ease any fear of abandonment.
10. Keep Cool
The room, that is. Maintain a cool, dark room to help your child fall asleep. Additionally, take care to create a soothing, non-stimulating environment. Background noise and comfort can contribute to how easily or not your child falls asleep.
Source: Chahal H, Fung C, Kuhle S, Veugelers PJ. Availability and night-time use of electronic entertainment and communication devices are associated with short sleep duration and obesity among Canadian children. Pediatric Obesity. 2012.