Sleep is vital for good health! While we are sleeping, our body rebuilds cells, grows, builds up our immune system and generally allows us to give our nervous, skeletal and muscular systems a chance to recover and reconstruct. For children, sleep is very important as their bodies are going through a very active growth phase. So how much sleep is recommended? The following is a general guideline for children:
- Newborn – Up to 18 hours
- 1 to 12 months – 14 to 18 hours
- 1 to 3 years – 12 to 15 hours
- 3 to 5 years – 11 to 13 hours
- 5 to 12 years – 9 to 11 hours
- Teenagers – 9 to 10 hours
Sleep is controlled by many factors, one of the very strong factors being the circadian clock (body clock). Put simply, the response of the body to daylight causing wakefulness, and dim light/darkness and causing sleepiness.
There are also different stages of sleep, rapid eye movement (REM) and non rapid eye movement (NREM). REM sleep is a period when our brain is almost awake, our eyes move rapidly and we dream. NREM sleep is when our brain activity slows down, our blood supply to our muscles is increased, tissue grows and repairs and our energy is restored. It is also the period of sleep where important hormones are released in the body promoting development and growth.
So, enough with the science! How do we get our children to establish a good sleep pattern? Firstly, let’s go back to the circadian clock, also known as our body clock. Our body’s naturally respond to light and darkness in terms of sleep. We are most active in light and that is where our energy levels are high. In darkness, our body slows down and we have less energy. Our eyesight is not good in the dark and we have more of a tendency to sleep. Given this factor, the first thing that you can do is to ensure that your child’s bedroom is sufficiently dark to encourage sleep. With our very long daylight hours in the summer, blackout blinds or curtains can be very useful. Dim light can help your child to relax and move into a state of sleepiness.
A good routine, particularly for younger children, can be very helpful in establishing a good pattern for bedtime and sleep. There are many actions you can take to help, from winding down time to routine charts. Winding down time is very important. Have a period at bedtime where your child relaxes and winds down before sleep. Avoid TV or other stimulants in their bedroom. Have a routine of preparing for bed (putting on pyjamas, washing, brushing teeth). Help them to relax by reading a story, having a quiet chat, cuddling and helping them to feel secure. This can be a very enjoyable time for both you and your child. The environment should be as relaxing as possible.
Remember our circadian clock and try to have the room dimly lit to encourage sleep. Remember, blackout blinds or curtains are a great help. Also, try to have the room quiet and peaceful to avoid stimulating your child.
You could use a chart to establish the routine with children. Depending on the child’s age, this could be a simple picture chart or a mixture of pictures and text. For bedtime routine, the chart could have a picture to represent each stage of getting up to bed:
Having a routine chart will help your child to follow the steps of bedtime. If you have difficultly getting them to follow the routine, you could introduce a reward system. A star could be awarded each time the routine is followed by your child. A reward can then be given when a certain number of stars have been earned.
Many parents ask what they should do if their child wakes up in the night. A lot of time the child simply needs reassurance from you that they are safe and secure. Comfort them with a soothing voice and physical contact (perhaps a cuddle) and this will help them to go back to sleep. If your child has awoken because of a nightmare, reassure them, comfort them and help them to feel safe and secure with you to help them to stop being frightened of the nightmare. If they can tell you the nightmare, you could try to think up a happy or a funny ending to the dream. Be aware of things that may be causing nightmares – TV programs, computer games, family situations and many other items may be triggering a nightmare for your child. Listen carefully to what the nightmare is about and try to ensure that there isn’t something happening in the child’s environment that could be causing these dreams.
Children have wonderful imaginations. It is this imagination which can create the nightmare in the first place so it makes sense to use their imagination to creatively banish the nightmare. On one our parenting courses, we discussed nightmares in young children. One Dad told us a lovely story about how his daughter, aged 4, woke frequently worried about the bad fairy that came into her room. He bought some ‘magician’ type materials from a local hobby store including glitter flakes, stars and a magic wand. Later that day, he brought his daughter up to her room and went through a ceremony of sprinkling the fairy charms around the room and then used the magic wand to tell the bad fairy to go away and not to come back. He then let his daughter keep the wand in her room so if she was worried about the bad fairy coming back, she could wave her magic wand and the bad fairy would not come back. It was a sweet and simple story but it worked for that little girl. Maybe something like this could work for you? Another example that we heard from a parent on one of our courses was about his little boy who was having nightmares of having monsters under his bed. He loved his teddies and usually slept with a number of them around his bed. At night, his Mother had a chat with each of the teddies and gave each of them a job about protecting the little boy from the monsters and then placed the teddies around his bed. The little boy slept well because he knew that his teddies would keep the scary monsters away! As long as your child believes in the solution, it will work. You know best what will work for your child so use your imagination to solve the nightmare problems!
Many of the common behavioural problems of young children presented to us over the years, are simply due to the child not getting enough sleep and being tired through the day. Getting sufficient sleep us essential in helping your child to grow, renew and behave well so work at establishing a good routine, it will be worth it to all of you -sleep well!