A Healthy Sleep Lifestyle Begins in Childhood

In recent years, researchers have confirmed the importance of sleep in a child’s growth and development. Not only do children need more sleep than adults, but we now know that ensuring sleep in childhood can have lifetime benefits.

Although the critical importance of sleep for children may seem obvious, many of our children fail to get the sleep they need for optimal physical and psychological development and functioning. 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 involved in or affects cellular repair, the release of growth hormone, immunity, strengthening the nervous system, metabolism, and weight management—all while playing a vital role in crucial brain development.

When Children Don’t Have Sufficient Sleep                                                                                   

Many children are getting less sleep than the recommended amount, and more than two-thirds of children experience frequent sleep problems. Without adequate sleep, a child is less mentally alert and more inattentive, impulsive, argumentative, hyperactive, and prone to accidents and injury. Memory consolidation, mood regulation, attention, school performance, and the capacity to learn are all diminished when sleep is compromised. Additionally, poor quality sleep negatively impacts the immune system, which makes a child more susceptible to illness, including chronic and acute health problems.

Is Your Child Getting the Sleep He or She Needs?

A lack of sleep in children can manifest differently than it does in adults. Instead of being lethargic, a sleep-deprived child can be hyperactive or have behavior issues. Other signs of sleep deprivation include:

  • falling asleep often and quickly in the car.
  • falling asleep in school.
  • struggling to get him or her out of bed in the mornings.
  • sleeping in several extra hours on the weekends.

If any of these describe your child, chances are he or she is not getting an adequate amount of sleep.

Sleep Problems in Childhood and Adolescence May Negatively Impact Adulthood       

Young children learn at a rate that is never again achieved during their lives—and sufficient sleep is critical to optimize this learning. Yet studies have demonstrated that even minor sleep deprivation can negatively impact a child’s neurocognitive functioning. Research has demonstrated that not having a regular bedtime correlates to lower cognitive test scores, even suggesting that sleeplessness and lack of quality sleep in early childhood may result in a lasting change in the wiring of the brain.

Insufficient sleep is not just a concern for younger children. Adolescents are developmentally vulnerable to insufficient or poor-quality sleep as well. The lack of adequate sleep in teenagers is associated with poor school performance, risk-taking behaviors, mood swings, motor vehicle accidents, obesity, diabetes, substance abuse, depression, and even suicide. Teens who are chronically sleep-deprived do not function optimally, and lack of consistent, quality sleep greatly diminishes their chances for reaching their full potential.

Sleep Tips for Children                                                                                                                                 

To help ensure your children are getting the sleep they need, consider these kid-friendly sleep tips.

  • Ensure children are consistently getting the recommended amount of sleep. The sleep duration guidelines are at the AASM website.
  • Make sure your child gets plenty of physical activity during the day.
  • Institute a regular and non-negotiable bedtime for children. A regular bedtime fosters healthy, independent sleep and helps children get the sleep they need on a regular basis.
  • Don’t use staying up late as a reward or going to bed early as a punishment.
  • Don’t use a child’s bedroom for time-outs.
  • Ensure your child has a comfortable sleep surface and bedding. Avoid hand-me-down mattresses and pillows.
  • Institute a relaxing bedtime / pre-sleep routine. Quality sleep must be fostered through a calming, comforting, positive, and predictable transition from wake to sleep. Following a consistent bedtime routine aids in the development of healthy sleep habits that result in quality sleep.
  • Ensure your child’s sleep environment is quiet and dark. If a nightlight is needed, don’t keep it close to the bed, and use an amber color.
  • Avoid caffeine, including soft drinks, chocolate, caffeinated tea, and coffee-based drinks.
  • Empower your child to be actively involved in his or her sleep health by participating in pillow, mattress, pajama, book, and/or bedding selection.
  • Talk about the importance and benefits of sleep early and often with your child. 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.
  • Keep a sleep schedule even on weekends and holidays. Children can stay up later and sleep later, but keep the discrepancy minimal. You don’t tell your children they do not have to brush their teeth on weekends or over the summer. Have the same consideration for their sleep.
  • Going to bed is not a choice for your child, so give him or her an opportunity to make choices in the process, such as which pajamas to wear or book to read.
  • Monitor screen time during the day and keep TVs and all electronics out of the bedroom. Have a media curfew, ideally 2 hours before a child’s bedtime.
  • Consider sleep a vital sign, and address sleep at all healthcare provider encounters.
  • Discuss sleep/alertness issues with your child’s teachers. Advocate for healthy school start times that allow for sufficient sleep on a consistent basis.
  • Advocate for sleep health literacy programs in preschools, elementary schools, high schools and colleges and universities.
  • If sleep is not a priority for parents, then how can it be a priority for children? Set a good example—be a healthy sleeper role model.

 Let’s Rethink Sleep                                                                                                                                         

As individuals and as a society, it is imperative that we make children’s sleep health a priority. We must be vigilant about providing the best sleep possible for our children to ensure their health, safety, education, well-being, and quality of life—for their futures depend on it. No child’s health or well-being—or their potential—is expendable, and we must make the attainment of sufficient sleep a personal, family, classroom, and societal value.

 

Blogger: Terry Cralle, MS, RN       @PowerOfSleep

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