The benefit of getting quality Zzzs. Kids don’t usually appreciate the importance of a good night’s sleep, so it’s up to us as parents to help them get the rest they need. Quality sleep plays a critical role in early brain development, ongoing learning and the construction of memories. Sleep also allows the body time to heal damaged cells, and aids in the prevention of long-term health problems such as diabetes and hypertension. A good night’s sleep helps children and adolescents fully appreciate and interact with their daytime environment.
Sleep Interference: Causes and Consequences
The most common reasons for not sleeping well are resistance at bedtime, a delay in going to sleep and waking frequently during the night. Th ere are many known consequences of not getting quality sleep, and the problems can span all of childhood and adolescence. Infants may struggle with insomnia, increased fussiness and delayed development. Small children who don’t get quality sleep tend to have an impaired ability to learn and remember. They may also suffer socially because of a decreased ability to appreciate what’s going on around them. They are too tired to concentrate and to participate due to the lack of quality sleep.
Childhood obesity is linked to poor sleeping habits, and now there is concern that necessary chemical processes that occur during sleep may be altered, leaving children at risk for diabetes. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and depression are associated with poor sleeping patterns.
Not getting a good night’s sleep puts all young people at a higher risk for accidental injury. Adolescents who have poor sleep habits are more likely to succumb to negative peer pressure and even to use illegal substances.
Set Expectations Early-On
Learning to get quality sleep starts in early infancy. Sleep hygiene refers to practices that parents and children can use to promote good sleep quality, to allow for sufficient sleep time and to prevent daytime sleepiness. Most of the practices relate to the sleep environment, sleep routine and what happens during the day. Perhaps the most important influence on good sleep hygiene is establishing a consistent bedtime routine very early — including nap times, if appropriate, and waking times.
You can encourage good sleep behavior by teaching small infants to fall asleep independently or putting them to bed when they’re still slightly awake. Rocking and/or nursing babies to sleep can prolong the onset of going to sleep and increase the number of times a baby wakes during the night. You can also see similar issues if you remain in older kids’ rooms while they go to sleep. Teaching your children to sleep well may be their first shot at independence.
Be sure to make your expectations clear around bedtime from the very start. Bedtime routines should be predictable, happening at the same time each day and lasting about the same amount of time (30 minutes for infants and toddlers, and 30 to 60 minutes for older children).
Where your child sleeps should be as consistent as possible. A warm bath may enhance sleep onset. Reading can be an important part of a bedtime routine. Books, either read by adults or kids themselves, can help children deal with fears and teach them the importance of getting a good night’s sleep. When necessary, you can reinforce appropriate bedtime behavior by using age-appropriate, simple, safe rewards. Quality sleep is accomplished in a quiet, warm (but not too warm), dark room. Darkness helps the body to link sleep with the natural cycle of light and dark each day. A nightlight is okay if needed. Be sure to minimize disruptions in the bedtime routine for kids of all ages. In order to maintain quality sleep, you should discourage later bed and wake times during summer break and vacations.
Ban Bedroom TV
Leave the television out of the room from the beginning. TV is known to increase bedtime resistance and anxiety around going to sleep. Bedtimes get pushed back as do wake times, making the daily routine a problem on a recurring basis. Kids with televisions in their rooms have more difficulty going to sleep, staying asleep and getting quality, restful sleep. In addition, once the family goes to bed, oftentimes there is no quality control.
Allow Good Activities
On a positive note, there are many activities that are associated with good sleep hygiene. Daily physical exercise can improve sleep in adults and now is considered just as good for children. However, exercise should be finished three hours before bedtime.
Generally, food should not be a part of the bedtime routine; however, if eating must occur before bedtime, consider foods known to hasten sleep. Tryptophan, found in meats, poultry, soybeans, rice and dairy products, is similar to the sleep-inducing substances serotonin and melatonin. Caffeine should be avoided almost always, but at least four hours prior to bed since it can delay and decrease the quality of sleep. Avoid sleeping pills or unnatural ways to make them sleep quickly. We should know the medicine we use.
Establishing and applying sleep routines early on will empower you to give your children every opportunity to be alert, productive learners who can eagerly participate in their childhood!
Ann Petersen-Smith, PhD, RN, CPNPAC, is on the faculty at the University of Colorado College of Nursing and is a nurse practitioner in the emergency department at The Children’s Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, CO.