Why is Sleep So Important?
Throughout their childhood, children will spend 40% of their time asleep. Findings from paediatric research have indicated that quality sleep can improve things like learning, attention span and mood. You will probably have noticed this already, but what is less apparent is that good sleep can also promote healthy growth (whilst lowering the risk of excessive weight gain and diabetes), tissue and muscle repair, and the flushing of harmful toxins from the brain. Plus, when we sleep well the body produces cytokines, which help fight illness and infection.
Fewer colds, anyone? It turns out that good sleep is as important as diet and exercise.
When the quantity and quality of our sleep suffers, we suffer too, and it happens quickly. If your child drops just one hour of sleep a night, negative effects can be seen after only 4 days. Not great news when technology, entertainment and extra curricular activities are keeping our young ones up ever later.
So how much sleep is enough? It’s important to remember that all children are different and will need different amounts of sleep, but here is a general guide as to how many hours your child needs, and what time they should be going to bed to achieve them.
What Bedtime for a New-born Baby?
It might not feel like it to some of us, but babies spend about half of their time asleep. One reason for this is that growth hormone is released during sleep. Another reason comes courtesy of Columbia University Medical Centre where research has shown that when babies sleep, they are also learning; their brain is processing information and testing connections in the nervous system. What’s more, this sleep-learning continues throughout childhood and into adulthood.
To get the best start, new-borns will require 10.5 to 18 hours sleep per day, but won’t start developing their circadian rhythm (wake-sleep cycle) until 3-6 months. So to begin with, bedtime will happen as and when.
What Bedtime for a 3 to 6-Year-Old?
When we’re tired, we’re more sedentary and crave fatty foods, but these aren’t the only reasons we gain weight. It appears that sleep deprivation can also interfere with the hormone leptin (the hormone that tells us when we’ve had enough to eat), which adds to a growing body of evidence that suggests poor sleep is leading to excessive weight gain amongst children.
To keep your 3 to 6 year olds eating and developing healthily, they will need 11 to 13 hours sleep and should be going to bed between 7pm and 8pm when aiming for a 7am wake time.
What Bedtime for a 7 to 12-Year-Old?
Accidents and injuries are par for the course for most children. I certainly know my way around my local A&E! But did you know that sleep can even help us to stay safe? A study of school-age children showed that those who got fewer than 9 hours sleep a night were far more likely to get injuries requiring medical attention.
To perform at their best (and without too many accidents), 7 to 12 year olds will require 10 to 11 hours sleep and should be going to bed between 8:15pm and 9:15pm when aiming for a 7am wake time.
What Bedtime for a 13 to 16-Year-Old?
Poor sleep can lead to higher anxiety, which is sadly an increasing aspect of teenage life. When the body is unable to access its restorative deep sleep phase, levels of cortisol and stress hormones remain present, and even increase, in the body. This boosts levels of emotional stress and can also have a negative effect physically, increasing cholesterol and straining the heart.
13 to 16 year olds will require 9+ hours of sleep a night and should be going to bed between 9:30pm and 10.30pm when aiming for a 7am wake time.
How Can I Get My Child to Sleep?
Oftentimes, the biggest battle is actually trying to get your kids to fall asleep in the first place. Here are some tried and tested ways to try and lull them off to the land of nod a little sooner. Bear in mind that every child, and every parent, is different so what might work for one family, might not work for another. Try different combinations until you find a solution that works for you.
Put young children to bed while they are still awake (try not to let them fall asleep whilst eating). This helps them to practice self-soothing; the ability to put themselves to sleep. At the 3 month mark, begin to slow your response time when they wake up and at 6 months start making a conscious effort to let them fall back to sleep on their own before going in.
A good bedtime routine is essential for getting children off to sleep. Ideally this should be in place from 3 months and should be non-negotiable (but enjoyable!). For babies it might include a bath and for older children a clear bedtime and no tablets or mobiles before bed. Excessive screen time reduces melatonin, which is the chemical that tells the body when it’s time to sleep. As babies reach toddler stage, they can start doing some of their bedroom routine on their own.
Familiarity within the bedtime routine is important. Ensure the environment is consistent; will their room look the same if they wake up at 2am as it does now? If you won’t be in it then, don’t be in it when they fall asleep. When they wake in the night, maintain the routine; be gentle but firm and don’t stay in the room too long.
Sounds and Objects
Soothing sounds or objects such as a teddy bear or blanket can help prepare your child for sleep and will help to combat separation anxiety, which can become apparent in toddlers. The good old-fashioned bedtime story is still a great way to help children relax. Reading aloud to little ones, or allowing some reading time for older ones can work wonders.
Keep a Sleep Diary
Monitor your child’s progress by keeping a sleep diary. Record the hours they’re sleeping and how they are during the following day. It will show you the progress you’re making and perhaps reveal surprising connections between lack of sleep and types of behaviour.
Why is My Child Waking Up So Early?
Surprisingly, the reason children wake up early is often because they go to bed too late. It’s our old friend cortisol causing trouble again. When children go to bed too late, the body misses its sleep-window and begins to produce cortisol. The excess cortisol causes poor quality, broken sleep and can often lead an earlier wake time. Research has shown that children who go to bed later get less sleep overall.
All children are different, some are sleepers, some are night owls and these guidelines are just that – guidelines. However you go about it, remember the importance of sleep for your child’s growth and development. And don’t forget you need a little too!
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