We all want to give our children the best start in life. But few things are as crucial as simply protecting their rest and recovery time.
We all know that sleep is important. Even for adults, getting enough sleep is key to both our physical energy levels and our mental capacity, as well as our emotional wellbeing and health as a whole.
But when it comes to children, getting adequate rest and recovery time is even more vital. Yes, it’s true that most parents want their little ones to sleep so that they can get a moment’s peace. But the value of creating a structured and healthy sleep schedule is much greater than we might think.
From improving memory and mood to supporting physical growth, we’re going to take a look at why sleep is considered to be one of the cornerstones of children’s health.
We’ll also be exploring how the relationship between children and sleep changes as they get older, and be advising on some simple and healthy sleep tips you can implement to improve your children’s routine. Let’s take a look.
Sleep for cognitive function
Getting enough sleep is a critical factor in any child’s mental development and wellbeing. While children are busy resting, their brains are working hard – exploring the connections between brain and body.
Children who don’t get enough sleep are likely to have a harder time concentrating than others, as well as retaining information. Sleep-deprived children are also more likely to have trouble focusing and managing their mood.
One 2016 study – carried out by the University of Colorado and University Hospital Zurich, and published by the NHS – explored the relationship between sleep deprivation and brain development in children. Results found that continued sleep deprivation could impact the back and side regions of the brain involved in activities like planned movements, spatial reasoning and attention.
Another study – this one carried out by the NHS itself – focused on helping children stay calm and wind down before bedtime. The results showed that the children gained up to an extra 2.4 hours of sleep per night, and as a result reported feeling less ‘grumpy’ and more ‘happy’, as well as fewer incidents of anxiety and conditions like ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
And it wasn’t just the children who benefitted from their improved sleep quality. Parents and carers reported 16% fewer incidents of headaches, anxiety, depression and infections.
Sleep for physical growth
As well as benefitting the mental wellbeing of children, sleep also has a part to play in encouraging physical growth. Growth hormones are primarily produced during sleep. Consequently, a lack of sleep could result in a growth hormone deficiency. What’s more, lack of sleep can also impact a child’s weight.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep deprivation can inhibit the release of the leptin hormone, which tells a child they have eaten enough. If this hormone is impacted, a child can continue eating even after they’ve had enough food, making conditions like childhood obesity more common.
Lower energy levels mean children are more likely to rely on sugary foods for energy, which in turn can make it harder for them to sleep, creating a vicious cycle.
In 2018, The Guardian reported that levels of diagnosed sleep disorders had risen sharply in children during a period of less than five years – from 6,520 to 9,429 – despite a drop in levels of sleep disorders across all ages over the same period.
This was thought to be contributing to a rise in other health concerns among children, including increased levels of anxiety. It also coincided with a sharp rise in childhood obesity levels.
What does sleeplessness look like in children of different ages?
Children change hugely as they age, so of course the same is true when it comes to their relationship to sleep.
Newborns and infants: sleep, and lots of it
For newborns up to three months, sleeping a total of 11 to 18 hours per day is perfectly normal, but this sleep will likely be active. Babies will twitch, smile, such and generally appear restless while sleeping. The need for sleep is often indicated by fussing or rubbing their eyes.
By nine months of age, 70-80% of children will sleep through the night, sleeping 9-12 hours and taking one to four naps throughout the day, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Infants who feel more secure in their environments are often better sleepers, while signalling and crying for parents are commo signs of tiredness.
Toddlers and pre-schoolers: separation anxiety and sleepwalking
Within a 24-hour period, toddlers between one and two years of age require around 11-14 hours of sleep. This is the period when many sleep problems first occur, such as resisting going to bed, nightly awakenings and nightmares. A drive for independence, separation anxiety and a growing imagination can all add to these issues.
As children get a bit older, between three and five years of age, difficulty falling and staying asleep remain common. At this age, children require around 11-13 hours of sleep per night. Conditions like sleepwalking and sleep terrors usually peak during these years.
Sleep in school-age children: increasing pressures
Between the ages of six and 13, children experience huge changes in what is expected of them. From homework, sports and clubs to social gatherings, smartphones and computer games, their time outside school becomes increasingly full, all of which can eat into time they should be sleeping and winding down for sleep.
Factors like watching TV close to bedtime can lead to issues at this age, such as bedtime resistance, difficulty falling asleep, anxiety around sleep and sleeping fewer hours.
Mood swings, cognitive problems and conditions like ADHD are all prevalent at this age, and are all thought to be connected to sleep quality and quantity.
How to encourage a healthy sleep pattern in your children
Understanding your child is key to helping them through their bedtime difficulties, especially with older children. Is something worrying them and keeping them up at night? Simply talking to them could help to alleviate these stresses.
Avoiding screens in the run-up to bedtime is key, as is establishing a set nightly routine that helps your child wind down. Tablets, smartphones, TVs and other gadgets can all impact how easily your child gets to sleep, so try to keep their bedroom as a screen-free zone. You should also encourage your child to stop using screens for at least an hour before bed.
The sleep environment in your child’s bedroom is also important. Ideally, it should be dark, quiet and tidy, as well as cool. Blackout blinds can help with this.
Help your child to relax in the lead-up to bedtime by engaging in some relaxing things in the same order and at the same time every night. This might include activities such as a warm bath, a bedtime story or even some relaxing breathing exercises.
Sleep is one of the key pillars of your child’s health, and by addressing sleep concerns head on and establishing a clear routine, you can benefit your child’s health in the long run with an improved sleep regime.