Now today we’re going to talk about sleep and children. Before we say anything else, let’s establish one thing. Children need a lot of sleep. Babies need around 17 hours, young children between 10 and 12 hours. Teenagers, it would appear, genuinely need more sleep than adults at around 9.5 hours per night.
So. How many children are actually getting enough sleep to function properly? According to The Independent newspaper, up to two thirds of British children are not getting enough sleep and have missed as much as 4,500 hours by their 7th birthday. Blimey.
An increasing number of children are chronically sleep deprived. This leads them to be bad-tempered, unable to concentrate at school, have poor memory, reduced creativity, have cognitive impairment, they are more clumsy, have lower immunity, behavioural problems and a wide variety of health problems including obesity, diabetes and depression.
Good sleeping habits have to be taught like everything else. Babies can be taught from a very early age that there are times for feeding and times for sleeping and this should continue into childhood. Babies and young children are exhausting, particularly if you have more than one and, as a parent, you owe it to yourself to train your child to go to bed at a sensible time, not only for their sake, but for your own. Parents need child free time and time to rest and be with their partners, even if it’s only for a short time. Children must not be allowed to dictate the timetable of an entire household.
Another area where chronic sleep deprivation seems to have an impact is children with ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and inadequate sleep appears to be a contributing factor. In a study in Finland, children between 7 and 8 who got less than 7.7 hours of sleep per night were significantly more likely to be hyperactive or inattentive than the children who had 9.4 hours sleep or more.
Now this would appear to be common sense surely. Our parents’ generation sent us off to bed early as a matter of course, so what’s happened? I think it’s a combination of several things:
Too much television and time on computers: although we think TV is soporific and that we’re veg-ing out, it actually stimulates brainwaves but not in a way that aids brain development. The fast pace in the editing of many children’s programmes leads to difficulties with attention and hyperstimulation.
Not enough fresh air and exercise: not only will this prevent them from becoming overweight which can cause sleep difficulties in itself, but it helps with respiration and a healthy heart. They will also be tired for the right reasons, all of which promote healthy sleep.
Poor diet: Sugar and refined carbohydrates create fluctuating blood sugar levels that can disrupt your sleep in the middle of the night. Another side effect of excessive sugar consumption is insulin rebound, in which the body is overwhelmed with an influx of simple sugars and as a result cannot digest food properly. This condition causes a stress reaction in the body that prevents sleep.
Lack of parental control: As a parent we have a responsibility to make sure our children go to bed at the right time. It’s our job. We have to set boundaries; 8 o’clock must mean 8 o’clock and when you say one story, only read one story. If they’re getting enough sleep, there’s a reasonable chance their behaviour will be better and therefore cause fewer disruptions, making you less stressed and therefore better able to cope with enforcing a routine.
Lack of routine: Children need routine – it makes them feel safe – and this ties in with the paragraph above. Do the same things every night; warm milky drink, wash, teeth, bed, story, goodnight. It’s not always possible to stick to it, but do try.
Many children are sent off to bed with no supervision whatsoever. Many parents don’t read bedtime stories, don’t supervise washing and teeth cleaning, don’t tuck their children up, and let them fall asleep in front of television of computer games. There’s no security in this. To be tucked up in bed with a warm kiss goodnight, is sometimes all a child needs to settle. In my opinion, young children shouldn’t have computers or televisions in their rooms in the first place. How can you monitor what and when they’re watching?
As adults, we know that when we are chronically tired we cope less well with stress, so why should our children be any different? Will a permanently tired child turn into a permanently tired adult who can’t cope with the vicissitudes of modern life. We can’t risk it.
Children do suffer from stress and even if you have a good bedtime routine, life events can cause children to become anxious and not sleep. Talk to your child and listen to what they have to say. If it persists, take them to the doctor in case they need some counselling or treatment for a physical problem.
So to recap:
- Make sure your child has fresh air and exercise every day
- Set your routine and stick to it
- Remove televisions, computers and mobile ‘phones from the bedroom
- Have soft lighting in the bedroom
- Don’t have dinner too close to bedtime – a milky drink and a biscuit or a banana should be sufficient
- Have half an hour’s ‘wind down’ before going up to bed
- Keep the bedroom cool
- Supervise bedtime, tuck them in, read them a story, then leave the room
- Make sure they know you’re pleased when they stay in bed – maybe keep a star chart so they can earn a treat
I understand that this is sometimes difficult. Boy the Elder needs 23 ½ hours sleep a night and Boy the Younger needs 9 or 10. When they shared a room it was horrendous as Boy the Elder was getting massive sleep deprivation and in the end he would often have to come in with me. It is much better now they have separate rooms and, combined with a stricter regime, star charts really do help because they can see immediate evidence of their successes.
I’ve just realised that we haven’t even started on babies, so I shall have to do a Sleeper Part 3, but don’t worry, it won’t be as long as the first two!
Royal College of Psychiatrists
The Sleep Disorders Centre, Sacre-Coeur Hospital, Paris
British Medical Association Journal August 2000
Paediatrics – April 2009
The Sleep Apnoea Trust
The Independent newspaper – May 2003
The Times newspaper – November 2009
Loughborough University, England
The University of Montreal, Canada
The University of Helsinki, Finland
The Good Night Guide for Children booklet