Have you worried lately that your child may have ADHD because he cannot seem to concentrate? Maybe you have been concerned that your child has a mood disorder because she has been irritable and difficult to manage. Perhaps you think your child lacks social skills because of frequent conflicts with peers. Before jumping to such conclusions, consider examining your child’s sleep habits.
The general consensus by researchers, as well as the public, is that our children are not getting the sleep they need and it may be reflected in their health and behavior. Current recommendations for total daily sleep from the American Academy of Sleep Science and endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics are as follows:
- Infants: 12-16 hours
- Toddlers: 11-14 hours
- Preschoolers: 10-13 hours
- School aged: 9-12 hours
- Teenagers: 8-10 hours
However, youngsters are often falling short of these sleep requirements because of a variety of factors. The lifestyles of many families include long work days for parents which may mean that after arriving home, preparing dinner, mealtime, homework, baths, and the bedtime ritual, it is already too late for kids to get a full night’s sleep before waking to start the morning routine again. In other cases, it may be the children’s busy schedules of sports, music lessons, school projects and such that interfere with adequate sleep. And the distraction of electronics adds to the picture, as young people (as well as adults!) find it difficult to quit the video game, stop texting or decide not to watch the next episode of a favorite series on Netflix.
In addition to these issues that may delay bedtime, children may have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep through the night. This is often due to one of the most prevalent sleep disturbances in children, behavioral insomnia. In the sleep-onset association type, it results from negative associations with sleep. Maybe your child fears sleep, bad dreams or letting go of the day, and needs you to cuddle with them, rub their backs or provide a specific comfort item in order to fall asleep. If they awaken during the night, they are unable to soothe themselves in order to fall back asleep and again need a parent. Maybe the conditions in the room, such as noises and temperature are interfering with sleep. An older child may be affected by the blue light from electronic devices that can suppress the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that influences circadian rhythms, and even reset the body’s internal clock to a later schedule.
Maybe your child simply refuses to go to bed or keeps asking for one more book, a glass of water or another back rub, crying if you do not comply. This would fall under the other type of behavioral insomnia, resistance to limit-setting by the parents. Older children or teenagers may have an excessive amount of anxiety regarding sleep and sleeplessness, creating a vicious cycle. As a result of these types of insomnia, your child may be sleep deprived and so may you! And we know that lack of sleep can lead to a host of difficulties with attention, emotional control, reasoning, and behavior, as well as health problems.
Parents want their children to get adequate sleep and function at their best. So, what should you do? Obviously, the specific approaches will depend on the age of the child, but the main thrust is to develop best sleep practices to help them fall asleep easily, stay asleep and wake up feeling refreshed. The best way to accomplish this is to set a sleep schedule and stick to it as much as possible.
Here are some specific ideas:
- Learn about your child’s sleep needs based on age and functioning.
- Establish a bedtime routine, starting with a time to wind down, and then the various steps to get ready for bed, such as bath, putting on pajamas, teeth brushing, story time and tucking in.
- Create a positive sleep environment that is quiet, dark (a nightlight is okay), and cool.
- Make sure electronics are turned off awhile before bedtime.
- Encourage exercise, but not just before bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine.
- Provide time to talk about worries earlier in the day.
- Teach self-soothing by removing yourself while your child is falling asleep.
- Use positive reinforcement for adhering to bedtime.
If these efforts are not working well enough, you may need to seek professional help. If the problems are behavioral in nature, a child psychologist can work with you and your child to promote good sleep. They may also recommend a sleep clinic to evaluate and treat other possible sleep disorders.