Prioritize sleep and put it high on the agenda. There’s more packed into our children’s days than ever before, and sleep is simply not recognized with adequate importance.
Researchers at King’s College London have just added more evidence to the pile showing that irregular bedtimes and insufficient sleep in childhood may result in increased calorie consumption and obesity. And there’s more.
Children who aren’t getting enough sleep are more likely to experience daytime behavioral problems than those who do not. Chronic irritability, attention problems and hyperactivity are associated with inadequate sleep. Poor sleep also particularly affects higher-level cognitive skills – the organizing and regulating of thoughts and behavior, planning and problem-solving. So sleep-deprived children may have more trouble managing emotions, have mood swings and seem irritable or anxious, as if these issues aren’t bad enough in the teen years already.
More alarmingly, perhaps, there’s a growing body of work linking insufficient sleep with children’s learning and academic performance, from infant learning through to adolescents at school. Even a loss of one hour per night may have a significant impact on cognitive functioning, and the tricky part is that signs that children are tired are often overlooked or misinterpreted, but once you know what to look for there’s plenty that parents can do.
Lack of quality sleep in childhood can be caused by a range of factors, including a number of pediatric sleep disorders. One of these, insomnia, is defined as the difficulty in initiating and/or maintaining sleep despite adequate opportunities. It’s estimated that one in four children will experience insomnia at some point, and that figure is rising in part owing to use of technology and social media and the drive to be socially connected. Increased use of electronic devices before bedtime, such as mobile phones or tablets, is certainly a big factor, with their bright screens disrupting the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. To deal with tiredness, some adolescents use stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine and other highs of varying legality, which can make the situation worse.
It’s important to recognize that children differ in the amount of sleep they need, but a good place for parents to start is with the National Sleep Foundation’s How Much Sleep Do We Really Need? for an idea of the developmental norms.
If you feel your child is not getting enough sleep, gather information about their sleeping patterns through keeping a diary and reflecting on the bedtime routines. Where concerns arise, start with your GP or pediatrician for advice so as not to overlook physiological pediatric issues, including breathing and movement-related sleep disorders. These are often undiagnosed, and resolving the underlying physical causes can make a big different to the quality and duration of sleep.
Educate your child. Good-quality sleep leads to improved energy levels and promotes a healthy metabolism, immune system and growth. As they get older, support children to understand the process; why it’s so key for their wellbeing and strategies that they can use to get a good night’s sleep.
There are lots of helpful resources – from picture books for younger children to leaflets and websites for older children. Make it meaningful to your own child’s interests and motivations, particularly during adolescence. As parents, we should also reflect on ourselves as role models and our own sleep habits and use of electronic devices. Practice what you’re preaching and you’ll likely benefit yourself.
Ensure the foundations for promoting good sleep are established by supporting a consistent bedtime routine and following advice around “good sleep hygiene”. Discuss and set limits about electronic device exposure and eliminate usage in the hour leading up to sleep. Limit sensory overload and multitasking in the lead-up to bed and aim for a routine that helps the brain and body to wind down ready for sleep. Discourage any caffeinated drinks after lunchtime and make sure to follow regular sleep/wake times, even over weekends and holidays. It helps to keep your child’s body clock in a regular rhythm, making it easier to get to sleep and wake up.
Even with all of this in place, some children will still need some additional support. For younger children, this may involve behavioral programs to help them feel confident and secure in falling asleep without an adult present.
Other children may need psychological support to address areas such as anxiety-related sleep difficulties. Cognitive behavioral programs have an increasingly good evidence base for helping with insomnia by changing the cycle of thoughts, beliefs and behaviors around sleep. Other effective interventions promote relaxation of mind and body over a 24-hour cycle, including mindfulness techniques. Meditation has been shown to be a promising technique to help promote self-acceptance and relaxation, which helps when the mind needs to switch off .
Sleep is about far more than just recharging our batteries. It’s no accident that we spend a third of our lives doing it, and it’s of little surprise that researchers, in what is a relatively new field of study, are discovering just how pivotal it is for children to get the best start in life. Like diet, exercise and education, we need to start treating sleep with the respect it really deserves.