Night, night, sleep tight

All babies and children fight going to bed at some stage or another, but one thing’s for sure, growing bodies need good quality sleep and plenty of it. What happens when they don’t get enough and how can we ensure that they do?

A good night’s sleep is essential to ensure we are rested and have the energy to tackle another day. Sleep has a replenishing effect, and enables the body to recoup energy spent while awake. Sleep also has a restorative effect, allowing the body to repair muscle tissue that has sustained damage during the day. A solid night’s sleep is essential for the immune system and also helps our metabolism by regulating our body temperature, weight and blood pressure. So it’s easy to see why sleep plays a vital part in the developing minds and bodies of our children.

Signs of a sleep-deprived child

Even if they’re tired, children generally just keep going to the point of exhaustion – falling asleep at dinner or having an emotional meltdown are classic examples!

So what are some of the signs to look out for before you get to this point? In babies, it’s the eyes that give the telltale signs. A fixed stare or glazed look, rubbing their eyes or glancing away can be indicators it’s time for sleep. Also look out for grizzling, tense, jerky movements and clenched fists. Learning to read tired signs is the essential step to ensuring your baby can be successfully settled into slumber before becoming overtired and unable to self-settle.

In the older child, morning grogginess and a reluctance to get out of bed may be symptoms of a lack of sleep, just as they are with adults. Throughout the day, watch for irritability, temper tantrums, over-emotional or hyperactive behaviour and extra naps.

The consequences of skimping on slumber

Sleep is so important to our health and wellbeing, it even has its own celebrated day. World Sleep Day takes place to raise the awareness of sleep as a human need that is often compromised by modern life. The World Association of Sleep Medicine (WASM) estimates that 25% of children worldwide are affected by poor sleep. Sleep deprivation in children may lead to emotional issues such as moodiness, aggressiveness, impulsivity, irritability and frustration. Memory, attention, learning and reasoning may be affected, and there may be a change in a child’s activity levels, with them appearing either hyper or low on energy. Poor sleep quality may also lead to a higher incidence of accidental injury and obesity.

Getting a good night’s sleep

Sleep issues are part-and-parcel of parenting. However, there are several steps you can take to help your child drift into dreamland. To guide you, WASM has come up with the ‘10 Commandments of Healthy Sleep for Children’ that include:

  1. setting an age-appropriate bedtime and waketime
  2. ensuring consistent bedtime and waketimes every day of the week
  3. establishing a bedtime routine
  4. encouraging your child to fall asleep by themselves
  5. avoiding bright light at bedtime and during the night
  6. removing all electronics, including televisions, computers and cellphones, from the bedroom and limiting their use immediately before bedtime
  7. maintaining a regular daily schedule, including mealtimes
  8. using an age-appropriate nap schedule
  9. spending time outdoors and plenty of exercise during the day
  10. eliminating caffeine-containing foods and drinks

Sleepytime foods

Milk and bananas are popular options for lulling youngsters (and adults) off to sleep. Both these foods contain the amino acid tryptophan, which the body converts into serotonin and melatonin. Both serotonin (a neurotransmitter) and melatonin (a hormone) are essential for a good night’s sleep. Even if you’re sceptical about these food’s pro-sleep effects, at the very least they are a healthy bedtime snack.

Getting up with the birds

There are some children who think that their day needs to start at 5am. It is true that a small percentage of children are naturally early risers due to their own internal body clock. These ‘larks’ are characterised by their ability to sustain their energy levels and happy disposition throughout the day despite their early rising.

However, the majority of children will wake early due to other reasons, such as noise, light, hunger or habit. If you have one of these children, there are a few things you can do to encourage a little more shut-eye.

For babies and infants, make sure the room remains dark so they are not disturbed by the very first light of the day. Try to keep noise to a minimum and encourage other family members to do the same. For older children, explain the appropriate time for getting out of bed, and reinforce the message by being consistent each and every morning. For the persistent early riser, a pile of books by the bedside may keep them lying quietly in bed until it’s time to get up.

Sweet dreams and special times

While there are bedtime preparations such as bathing, teeth brushing and toileting that need to be done, this time of day is also an opportunity to spend time with your child. Allow enough time so you can relax with your child, reading them a book or listening to some relaxing music. Enjoy a chat about what’s happened during the day, and perhaps what’s coming up tomorrow. Spending this special time together can help to send your child off to sleep feeling secure and relaxed – the best start for a successful night’s slumber.

Ages & stages

Under-5s

  • At 1-month-old, babies sleep around 16 hours a day, decreasing to 14-15 hours at the age of 1 and moving to 10-12 hours between
    the ages of 3- and 5-years.
  • Total sleep over 24 hours is made up of daytime naps and a longer night time sleep.
  • Infants have sleep cycles of 50-60 minutes, compared with a 90 minute cycle in adults.

5- to 8-years

  • Need for sleep is 10-11 hours
    per night.
  • The introduction of school emphasises the need for quality sleep for optimal attention and concentration throughout the day.
  • Energetic children may need a period of quiet time prior to bed in order to relax and wind down.

9- to 12-years

  • Need for sleep is 9-10 hours
    per night.
  • Ensure children have the opportunity to catch-up on sleep lost due to
    late nights.
  • Limit use of technology such as television and computers immediately before bedtime.

 

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