When you start a family, you know that losing some sleep will be part of the journey ahead. This is because young babies, toddlers, and children generally need a lot of nighttime attention.
These are short-term disruptions to sleep, however. What’s particularly testing on the whole family is when an older toddler or child, biologically capable of sleeping through the night, persistently struggles to sleep for long enough. This might be because they find it hard to settle down at night, wake up frequently in the early hours, or because they are early risers.
This scenario means that your child will likely be sleep-deprived, and so might the rest of the family.
The topic of sleep is one that frequently arises in conversations with parents at our nursery schools in the UAE. We all want children to be well-rested, happy and eager to learn. What can we do to help them? To help with this problem, we explore some ideas here.
The dangers of sleep deprivation
How do you feel when you haven’t had enough sleep? Tired and teasy, probably.
You may feel like you’re quicker to lose your patience, you may feel more bad-tempered, or you may struggle to concentrate. You may even get forgetful or feel sadder than usual. These are all typical symptoms of sleep deprivation and they can seriously affect your day-to-day life, your work, your relationships, and your happiness.
Your child will be affected by sleep deprivation in the same negative ways. However, whereas you can recognize the cause of these symptoms and understand that you’re tired, children are rarely capable of the same. More often than not, children will protest that they’re definitely not tired, even when we can clearly see they are.
When your child is sleep-deprived, you may find the following happening:
- They get moody or fussy, often at the same time each day.
- They may get hyperactive.
- They lack interest in activities.
- They struggle to stay awake during the day at an age where most children no longer nap. For instance, they may fall asleep in the car, even on trips of a very short duration.
These symptoms will have many side effects. They may struggle with friendships. Their learning may be affected. They may also struggle to follow instructions and codes for behavior in school or pre-school. They may have little energy for play.
Sleep deprivation can (and does) cause many problems for a child.
Why is sleep so important for children?
Aside from preventing sleep deprivation, what important things are happening when your child is asleep?
Adequate sleep is vital for a child because it allows them to:
- Recuperate physically from a long day
- Preserve energy for the next day
- Recharge their brain
These are the same reasons that adults need sleep, too.
However, children need more sleep than adults because of their rapid physical and mental development. Extra sleep supports all that is going on in their brains and bodies.
How much sleep does my child need?
No two children are the same, but here are guideline amounts provided by the National Sleep Foundation in the US:
- Babies (beyond the newborn stage) will sleep somewhere between nine to 12 hours overnight and take several naps during the day.
- Toddlers (from the age of around 18 months onwards) will usually only take one daytime nap. Their total sleep in one 24-hour period should be somewhere between 11 and 14 hours.
- Preschoolers (three to five-year-olds) need 11 to 13 hours of nighttime sleep. At some point during this period, they will stop needing a daytime nap if this hasn’t happened already.
- School-age children (6 to 13-year-olds) need nine to 11 hours of sleep.
If your child is at the younger end of these stages, they are more likely to need a higher number of hours of sleep.
How to help your child get enough sleep
What happens when you tell your child it’s bedtime? Many children don’t react well. They may complain and protest that they’re not tired. They may even cry, shout or throw a tantrum.
However, you know they need to sleep. They need to get to bed soon so they have enough hours available to get the sleep they need and be fresh in the morning.
Here are some tips to help make this happen:
1. Be strict about what time bedtime is
It’s really important that your child has a set bedtime which you stick to seven days a week. This allows the body to settle into a sleep-wake rhythm that will eventually become second nature. This rhythm is called the circadian rhythm or the body clock, a 24-hour cycle that all living creatures follow.
To help your child fall into this pattern:
- Choose an appropriate bedtime that will allow them to get enough sleep and still be up in time for nursery or school the next day.
- Stick to this time at weekends and during the holidays. Otherwise, the rhythm may get thrown out and your child may find it hard to get back into it right away.
- Don’t be tempted to let your child stay up late even if they don’t seem that tired. Again, this may throw their rhythm out. Their activity level may actually be hyperactivity caused by tiredness.
2. Get into a bedtime routine
It’s ideal to have a set bedtime routine that you and your child follow every single day. This helps your child prepare for sleep physically and mentally.
Here are some ideas for a good bedtime routine:
- Try to avoid particularly stimulating activities right before bedtime so your child can wind down gradually. Try to avoid screen time or very active play at this time. Something like a jigsaw puzzle or drawing will be more beneficial in getting a good night’s sleep.
- Start with any necessary hygiene tasks,e. cleaning teeth, washing, bathing or showering.
- Make sure your child is changed into comfortable clothing they enjoy wearing. An itchy label (you can cut this off) or pajamas they no longer like can really throw a relaxing bedtime out of the window.
- Spend some time talking calmly with your child. Sometimes your child may have something on their mind that may prevent them from sleeping. If you have a busy home and they have siblings, they may have been waiting for your undivided attention.
- Read a calming story under gentle lighting. Then end it with an affectionate good night.
Above all, bedtime should be a positive time that both you and your child enjoy. This will help lower your child’s resistance to it.
3. Be sure your child is getting enough exercise
Upping time spent outdoors or getting your child into a sport may help solve your problem.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that three or four-year-old children should be getting around three hours a day of physical activity, with at least 60 minutes of these being moderate to vigorous exercise or play. If your child spends a lot of time indoors or is driven about in the car rather than walking, they may have less physical activity than they need.
This can affect their physical development and their weight, but it can also affect their sleep pattern. According to several studies, poor activity levels can affect the amount of time it takes a child to fall asleep. Furthermore, children who fall asleep quickly tend to sleep for longer. So upping your child’s physical activity can have a really positive effect on their sleep.
Poor sleep and bedtime battles are commonplace in family life. But following these three essential practices can help ensure your child gets enough sleep to learn, grow, play and fully enjoy life. The whole family will benefit as well.
About The Author
Ayesha Hoda is a marketing and communications specialist working at Step By Step Nursery Group in the UAE. She holds an MBA degree from a leading business school in Pakistan and has more than 13 years of experience in corporate communications and journalism. She has worked in both agency and client-side roles, designing communication strategies for multinational clients, nonprofits and small businesses in various industries, such as education and healthcare.