Children and Sleep
Sleep is as important to our health and well-being as food and water, but most of us don't get enough of it. Sleep deprivation is currently one of the most pervasive health concerns in the United States. For children, sleep plays a critical role in their healthy growth and development. Beyond simply affecting children's moods, behaviors, and academic performances, insufficient sleep has also been associated with lower social skills, learning disabilities, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
How Much Sleep Is Enough?
When experts study the sleep needs of children, they consider the amount of sleep children need in a 24-hour period, including naps. Since every child is different, sleep charts are not exact; however, there are some agreed-upon ranges for children of different ages*:
- Birth to 6 months old: 10 to 18 hours of sleep each day
- Six months to 2 years old: 11 to 16 hours of sleep each day
- Three years old: 10 to 14 hours of sleep each day
- Four to 6 years old: 9 to 14 hours of sleep each day
- Seven to 9 years old: 9 to 12 hours of sleep each day
- Ten to 12 years old: 8 to 11 hours of sleep each day
(*from Iglowstein I., Jenni, O. G., Molinari, L., & Largo, R. H. (2003). Sleep duration from infancy to adolescence: Reference values and generational trends. Pediatrics, 111 (2), 302-307.)
Do these numbers surprise you? If so, you are not alone. Most parents are unaware of just how much sleep their children require in a 24-hour period.
Teaching Children Good Sleep Habits
Sleep habits-both positive and negative-are established early in a child's life, often in infancy, and parents play a key role in the process. For example, in order to help a baby stop crying, sometimes a parent will immediately pick up or feed a baby. After time, this may result in the baby becoming dependent on someone else to help him fall asleep. Then, as he ages, his inability to fall asleep by himself at night could escalate into behavioral tug of wars involving "another glass of water" or "just one more hug"-leaving all family members frustrated and exhausted in the end.
The key, of course, is to help your child establish good sleep habits early. Here are some suggestions.
- Establish a schedule of the day's main events, such as the same waking time, nap time, and meal times. Regular routines offer babies and young children comfort and security.
- Vary your child's daytime activities, making sure they are interesting and varied. Be sure to include physical activities and outdoor activities as much as possible.
- Determine a simple bedtime routine that is well suited to your child, such as reading a book or talking for a few minutes about the day's events.
- Use light to your advantage. Dim lights or close blinds and curtains as bedtime approaches. In the morning, open blinds and curtains to let in bright, natural light. Light helps signal the brain into the correct sleep-wake cycle.
- Give some time to determining your child's ideal bedtime. For example, observe her over several evenings and note when she begins to slow down and act physically tired. That is the time she should be going to sleep, so plan to begin her bedtime routine prior to that time. If you wait beyond when she should be in bed, she may get a second wind, and that's when the "tug of wars" are apt to begin.
- Establish bedtime as a special time. It should be a time to interact with your child in a way that is secure and loving, yet firm. Go through your bedtime routine together, then it's lights out and time to go to sleep.
If you suspect your child is sleep-deprived but are having difficulty establishing new sleep habits and routines, it's time to take action. You may find the following references helpful:
- The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Baby Sleep Longer by Harvey Karp
- The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night by Elizabeth Pantley and William Sears
- Nighttime Parenting: How to Get Your Baby and Child to Sleep by William Sears
- Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth
- Take Charge of Your Child's Sleep: The All-in-One Resource for Solving Sleep Problems in Kids and Teens by Judy A. Owens and Jodi A. Mindell