When children are first born, we expect to sleep very little. Their tummies need to be filled, diapers changed, and a reassuring snuggle given. At some point, though, it’s time for them to sleep. Later, in growth spurts especially, there are times when we wonder whether they can do anything but sleep. There is a balance to be found, and even though you aren’t counting wet diapers or singing softly to them in the wee hours of the morning, it’s important to monitor your child to be sure they are getting enough sleep.
The Importance of Sleep
A good night’s rest is non-negotiable for children. We adults tend to push our limits, staying up late or rising early to squeeze one last drop out of the day. Children would do this, too – ask any parent of a preschooler who needs just one more thing before they can sleep. Missing sleep affects adults significantly, but for children it is even worse.
Sleep and Daily Tasks
You know how hard it is to get through the workday on inadequate sleep. A child’s job is to learn – first, through play, and later through school. Without enough sleep, they are running on fumes and learning is inhibited. A 2015 study was conducted on the intricacies of sleep quality and children’s ability to keep up with their day. One of their findings included that a child’s
“sleep quality and time in bed were predictive of performance in the morning, and afternoon performance was related to current tiredness.”
In other words, those difficult mornings getting ready for school, and the crash around homework time, could be connected to the way he slept the night before.(1)
Another 2015 study, this one hailing from Italy, found that teens with the most efficient sleep were able to score better on their school exams than their peers within the study.(2) If your child is struggling on their tests or other educational tasks, take a look first at his sleeping habits. Ironically, much of this sleep is lost to attempts to keep up with homework – a truly tiresome catch-22 that must be addressed when helping kids get caught up on sleep.
Moods Affected by Sleep
Along with cognitive ability and testing success, a sleepless night – or, worse, chronic sleeplessness – has a major impact on moods and behavior. With an estimated 25-40% of children lacking sleep, a survey published in the Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics in 2012 listened to kids’ evaluations of their mood, connected with the amount of sleep they had the night before. When sleep was lacking and drowsy afternoons dragged on, feelings of sadness emerged. The connection was a bit higher in girls than boys, which could mean something about their sensitivity to sleep or simply that the boys didn’t identify those feelings as clearly.(3) Either way, a sleepy day is not likely to be a happy day.
In the same year, researchers from Canada found that children who lost a little less than an hour of sleep were more impulsive, restless, and emotional than before. But on the other hand, by adding just shy of one-half hour of sleep to their routine for just one night, they were even better behaved than they had been.(4) When determining whether or not your child’s struggles are related to sleep, be careful not to underestimate how little bits of sleep lost or gained can have serious impacts.
Sleep is a Matter of Safety
If you’ve ever stumbled around for a midnight snack or trip to the restroom, you’ve felt the more extreme sensation of sluggishness that a tired body feels. Though not as pronounced, that feeling can affect sleepless kids as they move throughout their day with dulled and exhausted senses.
Scientists in Iran looked into sluggishness as a matter of safety. In 2013, they published findings that indicate sleepless nights may lead to injured kids. By conducting a retrospective study, analyzing children who had been injured during the school year as compared with those who were not, they were able to see some patterns, and a common thread emerged. Children who had been injured were much more likely to have shorter sleep duration and poor sleep quality than the kids who avoided accidental injury to that point.(5)
Accidental injuries can be as simple as a scrape to the unspeakable, usually falling somewhere in the middle. If helping our kids establish a routine and get a full nights’ rest can avoid even one of these outcomes, the entire effort was worthwhile.
Sleeping Builds Stronger Bodies
When we sleep, our bodies take the visibly dormant time to get to work. Toxins are battled. Wounds healed. Muscles restored. Skipping sleep robs our bodies of the time needed to refresh and repair for another hard day at work.
Kids who fall short on sleep may be missing valuable restorative time, and in at least one study, it’s associated with a higher BMI for preschoolers. Having screens in the bedroom, long screen time throughout the day, and a lack of sleep was the cumulative culprit for the overweight children in a group of over 750 three and four year olds. In fact, outdoor play had little to do with influencing a healthier weight if these factors were present – a lack of sleep punctuated by extra screen time overrode the active play.(6)
These are some of the more pressing concerns caused by short and inefficient sleeping patterns. Whatever your child has been struggling with – school, weight, irritability, and clumsiness included – look first at their bedtime and wake up routines. Are your kids getting enough sleep?
Normal and Recommended Amounts of Sleep
As soon as we realize the problems that can stem from a lack of sleep, we want to know – what is enough sleep, anyway? Are my kids within the normal range? The answer is probably not what you’re looking for: it depends! Some parts of natural health and holistic wellness aren’t so cut and dried. Sometimes, we have to get to know our bodies and what they need – and then help our kids to do the same.
With that said, there are some recommended ranges that the National Sleep Foundation has set that will give you a starting point and a guideline to determine whether your child is getting enough sleep in a 24-hour period.(7)
- Newborns: 10 to 18 hours
- Infants and toddlers: 9-12 hours, plus naps
- Preschoolers: 11-13 hours
- School-aged: 9-11 hours
It’s important to note that this isn’t simply time in bed, but actually sleeping. While it can include naps, once the busy school-aged lifestyle hits, it can be difficult to count on regular nap times. Good sleep at night should be the first priority, which brings us to another point – our bodies were made to fall asleep and wake up with the sun.
You may recognize melatonin as a supplement marketed as a natural sleep aid, but it is first and foremost a vital hormone produced by the pineal gland. This is a small gland in the brain that’s sometimes called the third eye, as its production of sleep-inducing melatonin is triggered by waning light. When the sun rises and fills the room with light, melatonin release is slowed and the body begins to waken.(8) A sleep environment filled with light, a sleep schedule that differs greatly from the natural rhythm of the sun – these factors can throw off melatonin release and inhibit healthy sleep.
What’s Interrupting Your Child’s Sleep?
If your child is lacking sleep, you need to figure out the underlying cause in order to give them the best shot at adjusting and building better, long-term health habits. Sending them to bed earlier, for example, does little if the sleep environment itself is the problem. And even the quietest, darkest room will not help a child who struggles with their routine and “shutting their brain off.” Some causes of sleep disturbance to look into might include:
- Access to electronics
- Poor routines
- Caffeine consumption
Before you write any of these off as incidental, let’s look at their real and rather concerning impacts.
Access to Electronics
As technology becomes more and more accessible, children are bombarded with screens from the time they wake up until the time they go to bed – and sometimes much later than that! A growing body of evidence has raised concerns about children’s access to screen time both in their bedrooms at night and throughout the day. An example of such found just an hour of computer time and an hour or more of television reduced sleep duration and pushed back bedtimes, on school nights and weekends alike.(9) Technology is amazing and so very helpful, but if sleep is the sacrifice our children must make to access it, we need to help them make better choices. Sleep is not negotiable and should be protected.
From infancy, sleep is vital for growth and development, and from infancy, sleep can be disturbed when the body is out of sorts. Many parents who have known the struggles that colic and reflux present have brought their infants to chiropractors for adjustments and a little bit of hope. One such instance was recorded in a Canadian case study, memorializing the relief that an adjustment can bring.(10) As children grow – with growing pains, heavy backpacks, athletic lifestyles, etc. – their need for chiropractic care grows with them. Chiropractors are the primary alternative practitioner that adolescents in the US will see.(11) Your child may not be crying and needing your attention all through the night, but if they are not sleeping well, they could need the attention of a chiropractor.
This is an easy one to spot and difficult to remedy. Especially in high school, kids are run ragged before, during, and after school, keeping a strenuous pace and expected to perform well throughout it all. Even kindergarteners have been known to return home with homework assignments, extending their work into the evening hours. The impact of some of this strain was evaluated in Brazil, where longer commute times to and from school were associated with less overall sleep.(12) In a 2013 study, researchers noted that a child’s “number of hours of homework is negatively associated with psychological well-being, physical health symptoms, and sleep.”(13) If a child is moving from long bus rides to school, to long hours of homework, then “unwinding” with a tablet or computer late into the night – you can see how the problems compound.
Unfortunately, to compensate for a lack of sleep, kids are coping the way any of us do – with caffeine. Coffee, to be more precise. Over the last decade, kids have moved away from soda and toward sweetened coffee drinks and – more concerning – energy drinks.(14) Not only were energy drinks not formulated for children, but the amount of caffeine included typically exceeds that of a typical soda, and excess can be reached much faster. We have to help our kids cope with their routines and obligations by establishing better sleep routines before they resort to artificial stimulation, taxing their body and masking their need for sleep, continuing the cycle.
Setting Kids up for Sleep Success
Each child is different, requiring different amounts of sleep and succumbing to different sleep-inhibiting struggles. Still, we can guide them toward improved sleep habits to get them on their way.
Make it a priority to help your kids develop a healthy bedtime routine. Set a bedtime for them, no matter their age. Teens with parent-set bedtimes sleep better and function better.(15) Of course, the younger the child is, the more this will help them avoid long term problems (and help your evening improve, as well!).(16) Consider removing screens well before bed, playing relaxing music, reading, and calming down for the night.
As their parent, you can be in tune to their needs and help to set them up for a lifetime of successful sleep habits.