The Parent's Guide to Sleep

Published: 25 May 21
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How much sleep is enough for your child?

Sleep is as essential to well-being as nutrition and exercise are, yet many families (children and their parents) can experience difficulties sleeping at various life stages.

How do you get your children to bed and keep them there? What should you do when children wake up in the middle of the night? And how much sleep is enough?

The NHS offers the following guidance:

  • Babies: 4 to 12 months old 12 to 16 hours (including naps)
  • Toddlers: 1 to 2 years old 11 to 14 hours (including naps)
  • Children: 3 to 5 years old 10 to 13 hours (including naps)
  • Children: 6 to 12 years old 9 to 12 hours
  • Teenagers: 13 to 18 years old 8 to 10 hours
  • Adults: 18+ years old 6 to 9 hours

There is a clear link between a lack of sleep and your children's behaviour, though this is not always obvious. When adults are tired, they often become grumpy or lack energy. However, when children are tired, they often become over-excited, irritable, and can exhibit extreme behaviour changes.

As you can imagine, this has a significant impact on how our children learn!

 

What happens when we sleep?

As we sleep, we pass through five stages. These stages 1, 2, 3, 4, and REM (rapid eye movement) make up one sleep cycle. Each sleep cycle lasts about 90 to 100 minutes so, during one night's sleep, a person will experience about four or five complete sleep cycles. Stages 1 and 2 are light sleep stages.

  • It is easy to wake someone up during these stages
  • Eye movements slow down and eventually stop
  • Heart and breathing rates slow down
  • Body temperature gradually reduces

Stages 3 and 4 are the deeper sleep stages:

  • It is harder to wake someone up during these stages, and when awakened, a person often will feel confused for a minute or two
  • These are the most refreshing sleep stages, during which hormones are released to contribute to development and growth

The final stage of our sleep cycle is called REM because of the rapid eye movements that occur:

  • During REM, rapid eye movement occurs, breathing is rapid, the heart beats faster, and limb muscles don't move
  • REM sleep is the stage during which we have our most vivid dreams

Sleep for Pre-schoolers

Pre-schoolers need about 10–13 hours of sleep each night. Children who get enough sleep at night may no longer need to nap through the daytime. Instead, they may benefit from having a period of quiet time during the afternoon. Most nurseries organise quiet periods through the day when children lie on mats or just rest. As pre-schoolers give up their naps, they may begin to go to bed at night earlier than they did as toddlers.

Sleep for Primary Children

Primary Children need about 9 to 12 hours of sleep each night. Sleep problems can appear at this age for a variety of reasons. Schoolwork, homework, sports, after-school activities, screentime and busy family schedules can all contribute to young children not getting the sleep they need. Sleep-deprived children will become hyper and irritable, and they will struggle to focus and study at school.

Teenage Children

Teenagers children need between 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night, but most don't get this, usually because their schedules are overloaded or because they spend too much time messaging or chatting with friends until the early hours. Some teenagers try to go to sleep early, but instead of getting much-needed rest, they lie awake for hours.

Many teenagers are chronically sleep-deprived and their sleep deficit adds up over time. An hour less sleep each night adds up to a whole night without sleep by the end of the week!

Teenagers with a sleep deficit can't concentrate, study, or work effectively. A lack of sleep will lead them to become less attentive and to perform inconsistently at school. They also can develop emotional problems, like depression. Teenagers may start to use stimulants like caffeine or energy drinks to feel more awake.

During adolescence, the body's circadian rhythm (an internal biological clock) is re-set, telling the teenager to fall asleep later each night and wake up later each morning. So, teenagers physically find it more difficult to fall asleep, and often they will need to catch up on sleep during the weekend.

 

7 Tips to get a good nights sleep

  • (1) A BEDTIME ROUTINE: Doing the same relaxing things in the same order and at the same time, each night helps promote good sleep. A bedtime routine will prompt your child to slow down, relax and prepare for sleep. This routine could include having a warm bath, helping them get their bag ready for school the next day, stretches and massage, breathing exercise, reading, listening to audiobooks or calming music, having a warm milky drink before bed, dimming the lights.
  • (2) A SCREEN CURFEW: Encourage your children to have at least one hour of screen-free time before going to bed. Avoid screens in their bedroom at night, as the light stimulates the brain and suppresses melatonin production, making it difficult for them to fall asleep. Teenagers are also more likely to stay up late interacting with friends on social media if they can, so require them to charge their devices in the kitchen overnight.
  • (3) A SLEEP-FRIENDLY BEDROOM: The right environment is vital for good sleep. Your child's bedroom should be dark, cool (between 16C and 22C), quiet and tidy. Thick curtains or a blind can help block out early summer mornings and light evenings. Some younger children are comforted with a night light but avoid any that are too bright.
  • (4) DAILY EXERCISE: Moderate exercise regularly will help your child relieve some of the tension built up over the day. Exercising outside in daylight further encourages healthy sleep.
  • (5) HEALTHY FOODS: Too much caffeine (e.g., in coffee, coke, tea) will prevent children from falling asleep or reduce the amount of deep sleep they have. Eating too much food, or too little, close to bedtime can also lead to an overfull or empty stomach, and the discomfort may prevent sleep.
  • (6) MANAGE STRESS: Talk through any problems or write away any worries. Talk to your child to see if they are worried about anything in particular. Help them to put any concerns or issues into perspective. Encourage your child to make a to-do list before they go to bed so that they are less likely to lie awake thinking about things through the night.
  • (7) WEEKENDS: Encourage your child not to lie in for hours over weekends. Late nights and long lie-ins will disrupt their body clock and make it harder for them to sleep during weekdays.

And if your child cannot sleep? … Let them get up. They should not have to lie there and worry about it. They should get up and do something that they find relaxing until they feel sleepy again, then go back to bed.

"Go to bed, you'll feel better tomorrow" is the human version of "Did you try turning it off and on again?"

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