Who would have thought a generation ago that lack of sleep would be a huge health issue for children? I certainly didn’t but the reality is that many children today struggle with insomnia. Stay tuned and I will tell you how you can avoid much of the insomnia trouble plaguing American children.
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Modern Life and Your Children’s Sleep
It feels like the world is speeding up sometimes, doesn’t it? Change is coming at you and your family at a blistering pace. Chances are high that compared to your childhood, your children are spending far less time outdoors, hanging out with friends less, and participating in way more structured activities than you did. They are also engaged with far more technology like video games, entertainment media, and internet-based activities. For many, modern American childhood is changing the quality and quantity of children’s sleep. In fact, the average amount of sleep that children get every night has been steadily decreasing over the past twenty years. And that is a health crisis! As you are about to see, good quality sleep is absolutely fundamental to raising healthy children. As a parent, you just have to get bedtime right for your children. So, in today’s pedcast, we are talking about sleep and its importance to your children.
The purpose of sleep
You may be wondering why is sleep so important? It may seem like not much is going on in your children’s brains and bodies while they lay motionless, but in actuality, a lot is happening biologically. Good sleep is your children’s gateway to health and well-being. We now know that the process of sleeping isn’t at all random but rather a carefully regulated process controlled by a complex symphony of hormones and physiologic changes. As your children sleep, their respiratory and metabolic rates slow, their body temperature falls relieving a lot of the stress of their daytime life. This gives their bodies time to repair damaged cells and muscles, grow new tissues, help their brains to store short and long-term memories, remove waste products from various organs including their brains, rebuild energy stores, among many other functions. Getting good quality sleep is as important to good health for your children as feeding them good quality food, providing them exercise, or having them breath clean air.
What are the consequences of poor sleep in children?
As I just told you, on average, today’s children are getting less and less sleep. And there are bad consequences to this. Insufficient sleep has been shown to cause cognitive impairment, poor and immature behavior, increased behavioral problems, ADHD like behavior, increased susceptibility to illness, and slower growth. Additionally, insufficient and poor-quality sleep has been correlated with increasing obesity among children. Just one hour of sleep deprivation a night makes a child function at a full grade level below their age. Think of the consequences for a child who has any one of these conditions- tragic but possibly prevented by good sleep nightly.
How Can You Promote Healthy Sleep in Your Children?
OK Doc Smo, you have convinced me that sleep is really important for my children so what can we do to make sure your family gets it right? Good question. The answer is to make sleep a priority by adopting what experts call good “sleep hygiene”- you know, the stuff your grandmother thought was important. Grandma knew that, for a child, getting good quality sleep is just as important as brushing their teeth or washing behind their ears. Good sleep hygiene refers to the time tested cumulative best practices for maximizing a child’s sleep, something we should all be prioritizing. In fact, a recent cross cultural study studied sleep across the globe and consistently found that poor sleep hygiene negatively impacted behavior and cognitive function in children from Tokyo to Texas.
With all that, I hope i have convinced you that food sleep for your children should be a very high priority on your parenting to-do list. Now it is time to get practical… how can you practice good sleep hygiene and train your children to be great sleepers?
Here are some of the important Do’s:
- Set a nightly bedtime and stick to it. This has been proven to be important for young children and adolescents as well (although their bedtime will obviously get later as they age).
- Set a routine. Routine, such as setting and maintaining a fixed family dinner time, starting bedtime activities early, and having a bedtime ritual that is consistent, has been shown to fundamental for training children to sleep.
- Avoid electronics prior to bedtime. The research has shown time and time again that the blue light from screens and the stimulation of the content interferes with a child’s sleep. Avoid screens of any kind at least one hour before bed-period and of course, no electronics in their bedroom!
- Try reading a story to wind down. This is a great alternative to scrolling through a phone or tablet, promotes drowsiness, and is a great way to teach your children new words.
- Keep your bedroom cool. Studies show that keeping a child’s bedroom temperature between 60-67℉ encourages falling and staying asleep.
- Maintain a quiet dark bedroom. This is a no brainer – a quiet dark space helps with sleep.
- Teach your children to self-sooth. Self-soothing may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s actually best for your children. The idea is that if your infant or child walks up in the middle of the night, you give them the opportunity to go back to sleep on their own without going to comfort them. If you do need to tend to your child at night, try and spend very little time getting them back to sleep. This helps your child develop the ability to fall back asleep without you, improving their quality of sleep for the long-term.
Now for the Don’ts:
- Don’t– Put a TV or video games in your child’s room.
- Don’t– Sit with your child until they fall asleep or allow them to fall asleep somewhere other than their beds.
- Don’t -Create a sleep ritual that your child cannot reproduce on their own.
- Don’t– Be inconsistent in enforcing bedtime.
- Don’t– Allow your children to participate in very stimulating activities right before bed.
And one final point; while setting up good sleep hygiene for your children, it is good to remember this Doc Smo pearl, “Parents create the reality in which their children live, not the other way around.” In other words, if you as a parent consistently enforce a bedtime, your children will just accept that that is the way it is. If you play your cards right, follow the guidelines that we just outlined, and use your parental authority correctly, your children with be good sleepers, get all the benefits of a good night’s sleep, and thrive during the day.
Thank you for joining us today for another edition of Portable Practical Pediatrics. If you enjoy the information you get here, consider helping us grow our audience by sharing content with your friends and family as well as giving us reviews on social media or where you get your podcasts. This is Dr. Paul Smolen, hoping your children are getting good night’s sleep with nary a peep. Until next time.
This pedcast was written by Sonya Corina Williams and Doc Smo with helpful comments from Dr. Monica Miller and Dr. Charlotte Rouchouze