Although the critical importance and the need for sleep in children may seem obvious, many of our children fail to get the sleep they need for optimal physical and psychological development and functioning. Not only do children generally need more sleep than adults, but we are learning that the development of good sleep habits ensuring sufficient sleep in childhood can have lifetime benefits.
The Many Advantages of Sufficient Sleep
Sleep is vital to growth and development; it impacts cellular repair, growth hormone release, regulation of the nervous and immune systems, metabolism, and weight management. Sufficient sleep is also fundamental to learning, cognition, and safety. During the early years of life, the rate of learning is more rapid than at any other time in the life cycle, and attention, motivation, school performance, behavior, and memory are all impacted by sleep or the lack of sleep. Emotions, stress responses, resilience, outlook, relationships, mood, and even propensity for substance abuse are other aspects of affected by the quality and amount of sleep.
Childhood Sleep Strategies
Here are some steps to take to help ensure that your children are developing good sleep habits early and getting the sleep they need to have the best life possible:
- Talk about sleep early and often with your child, stressing the importance and benefits of sleep.
- Advocate sleep health literacy in school, from preschools through college. The more children know about sleep, the more likely they are to develop good sleep habits that will provide a lifetime of benefits and help them reach their maximum potential.
- Always discuss sleep issues with healthcare providers and teachers because sleep is foundational to health and learning. Treat sleep as a “vital sign.”
- Establish consistent bedtimes and sleep schedules for children that accommodate sufficient sleep times, and maintain them even on weekends and school holidays (with no more than an hour of deviation). The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has published sleep duration guidelines by age.
- Have a media curfew, ideally two hours before a child’s bedtime. Engage in relaxing, non-electronic evening activities prior to bedtime.
- Since children have no control over going to bed, give them some control in the process—by giving them some choices. For instance, let them choose which pajamas to wear or which book to read before bed.
- Make sufficient sleep a priority for the entire family. Be a role model by practicing good sleep habits.
- Children’s bedrooms should be their special places. When practical, let them have some say in decorating the room, choosing sheets, comforters, and pillows. Never use the bedroom for time out or make going to bed early a punishment or staying up late a reward. Children should have a positive association with the bedroom and with going to bed and getting the sleep their minds and bodies need.
- Help children get quality sleep by controlling light, temperature, and noise. A single nightlight or a closet light with the door mostly closed should be adequate to allay nighttime fears without affecting a child’s sleep cycle. The room should be cool and pajamas an appropriate weight. A white noise generator can help cover sounds of other household activities that may disrupt children’s sleep.
- A good bedtime routine is important because for many children, going to bed is like time out: they are losing parents’ attention and access to their toys. A good routine should be a clear indication to the child that it is time for bed. It should be short and sweet—20 to 30 minutes and gradually moving toward the bedroom. Bath, pj’s, brush teeth, read one or two short books, then cuddle time and lights out. Parents should leave the room while the child is still awake.
Support and Protect Our Children’s Sleep
Children’s sleep health has become a new priority in prevention and intervention, as sleep deprivation is associated with numerous adverse behavioral, cognitive, and health outcomes. Sleep is a fundamental and critical biological need—not an optional endeavor to be taken lightly. For optimum functioning, children require sufficient, quality sleep on a consistent basis. To that end, let’s work together—parents, family members, educators, healthcare providers and community leaders should be knowledgeable about sleep—and support and protect the sleep of our children. After all, an investment in our children’s health, well-being, and quality of life is the best investment we can make for the future.