No matter our age, we all need a good night's sleep to perform at our best each day. However, this is especially true for children. Here are some reasons why sleep is important, and tips to help you implement an effective back-to-school sleep schedule.
Why is good sleep so important?
- During sleep, your child's body produces growth hormones. Regular, sound sleep helps your child to grow up big and strong.
- Sleep helps your child to maintain a healthy weight. Studies suggest sleep-deprived children don't produce enough of the hormone that tells our brain to stop eating, which means they are more likely to be obese.
- Sleep helps to build a strong immune system. Your child produces germ-fighting proteins during sleep, which can help to ward off common illnesses and infections.
- Sleep boosts brainpower. Getting enough sleep helps to increase attention span, making it easier for your child to focus at school and retain what they've learnt for longer.
A 2013 study found that even 1 hour of extra sleep can have a positive impact on children's ability to complete tasks, answer memory-based questions and function emotionally.
How much sleep does a child need?
If you are not sure what time your child should be going to sleep, here is a guide:
- Infants aged 4 – 12 months should sleep 12 – 16 hours a day (including naps) on a regular basis
- Children aged 1 – 2 years should sleep 11 – 14 hours a day (including naps) on a regular basis
- Children aged 3 – 5 years should sleep 10 – 13 hours a day (including naps) on a regular basis
- Children aged 6 – 12 years should sleep 9 – 12 hours a day on a regular basis
- Teenagers aged 13 – 18 years should sleep 8 – 10 hours a day on a regular basis
So, how can you get your child onto a healthy sleep schedule?
Make time for exercise during the day
In addition to all the obvious health benefits of regular exercise, physical activity helps to tire your child out and make sure they get a sound night's sleep.
According to one study, every hour a child spends doing nothing adds 3 whole minutes to the time it takes for them to drift off. Conversely, physical activity helps them to fall asleep much quicker. So, if you're struggling to get your child to settle into a routine, introducing physical activity into their schedule is sure to make a difference.
As a bonus, the study found children who fall asleep faster are also more likely to sleep for longer.
Feed your child the right foods at the right time
Eating a heavy dinner late in the evening can confuse your child's body clock, and push their bedtime back further. This is just one of the factors that may contribute to the link between lack of sleep and obesity.
In addition, sitting down to a regularly timed evening meal as a family can help your child to establish healthy eating habits for life.
Meal-wise, avoid feeding your child sugary or fatty foods, such as chocolate or cheese, before bed. These take a long time to digest and may keep your child alert instead of sending them to sleep. You should also avoid giving them black or green tea, as they both contain caffeine, which can alter sleep patterns. White rice, oatmeal, wholegrains, nuts, fruits such as cherries or kiwi, or a warm cup of herbal tea, are all better options.
Turn off technology well before bedtime
Several studies have linked the use of technology before bed with increased alertness and difficulty falling asleep. One such study found that the more frequently adolescents used technology in the evening, the later they went to bed.
The science behind this? After 1.5 hours looking at a bright screen, our body produces less melatonin – the hormone that makes us feel sleepy.
This can have negative health repercussions. One study of children between the ages of 4 and 11 links increased screen time with increased sleep anxiety and increased sleep disturbance. Further studies associate a lack of sleep with decreased productivity, depression, lack of energy and poor school performance.
To counter this, you can try to limit the use of technology directly before bed. With younger children, you can encourage other activities such as reading, drawing or playing. With older children, you can suggest more passive activities (eg. watching TV, reading) over interactive activities (eg. video gaming, using a smartphone).
Remember – if you're using your phone a lot around bedtime, your children are likely to follow your lead. If possible, take a couple of hours to switch off as a family.
Stick to a fixed bedtime every night
Hyperactivity, problems interacting with peers, emotional difficulties – these behavioural issues are far more common if your child is sleep deprived.
Varying studies show a clear link between irregular bedtimes and sleep deprivation, which can lead to bad behaviour as well as poor academic performance.
While no two children are the same, establishing a set bedtime based on their habits and sticking to it during school time is an ideal first step for your school-friendly routine.
Set a bedtime routine
Establishing a bedtime routine is not only an easy way to start getting into school mode, it also encourages bonding between you, your partner and your child.
By setting a routine and sticking to it, you encourage healthy sleeping habits and cement your expectations for your child's behaviour every day.
Light the room right
Everybody has a different internal body clock. Early risers tend to have a faster body clock, while night owls tend to have a slow one.
If your child is sleeping in too long or rising too early before school, natural light can help to reset their body clock and promote healthy sleep.
Anything that resembles sunlight, as well as blue-rich lights (like phone screens) can impact your child's ability drift off at night, so try to make sure the room is as dark as possible.
Not enough sunlight in the morning can confuse your child's body clock. So, in the morning, open the curtains, turn on some bright lights or even sit outside for breakfast.
Try not to wait until the first day of school to implement your new sleep-friendly schedule. Instead, practise for a couple of days beforehand to get your child in the swing of things.
This will also give you plenty of time to work out how much time you need for each step, both at night-time and in the morning, and then adjust your routine accordingly.
Still struggling to set a sleep schedule?
Regularly sleeping for too long or little, waking often in the night, or underperformance at school may be indicators of a bigger problem. Consult your doctor if you notice your child:
- Sometimes stops breathing during sleep
- Has difficulty falling asleep
- Has problems sleeping during the night
- Has difficulty staying awake during the day
- Persistently snores
- Is suddenly struggling with daily performance
- Is sleepwalking
- Has regular nightmares
Sleep disorders can have long-term health implications, so if you are at all concerned about your child's habits, always seek medical advice.