From the age of 3 up until the end of primary school its estimated that children spend around 40-50% of their lives asleep. Sleep is crucial for growing, healing, learning / brain development and emotional balance (see here for research link). For most children and families, getting to sleep and getting enough sleep works smoothly enough. For some youngsters, however, poor sleep can be a headache both for them and for their families. Why does it go wrong?
Sleep can be disrupted at different developmental stages, such as transitioning out of day-time sleeps, or when undergoing a stage of rapid cognitive or emotional development, or when children start to experience typical developmental fears of the dark and being alone at night.
Some children just need less sleep than other children their age, there is a range in hours of sleep needed as you can see in the image below (See sleep need recommendations). For example one preschool age child may sleep 8 hours our of 24 and another may sleep 14 hours. If your child is at the lower end of the recommended range but is happy and functioning OK, it may well be that they just don’t need as much sleep as other kids.
A number of kids worry about having nightmares and become avoidant of going to bed. These worries tend to settle down over time. Some children are more prone to strong anxiety or worry that can either be to do with daytime or night-time worries. If the anxiety and reluctance to sleep alone is really impacting the child and or the family, seeking professional support is certainly an option. Childhood anxiety often responds very well to psychological/behavioural treatments.
Some children have a body clock that is naturally be set later (a night owl) and so they are not tired at 7pm. There reverse can also be true when kids are early birds who fall asleep well quite early in the evening but are bright eyed and bushy tailed before 5am.
Kids can have trouble sleeping in relation to physical health problems such as obstructed breathing and pain syndromes.
In terms of external circumstances, children’s sleep can be disrupted when the family is going through stress and / or periods of change or indeed when the child is having problems with school or friends. Parents might have struggled to implement predictable and effective bedtime routines, or accidently fostered a routine where their child has become reliant on parents being close to fall asleep. When parents are not united or are having mixed feelings about how to manage their child’s sleep, this can also contribute to problems.
What Can I Do About It? - General Pointers
Given there are so many reasons why children might be struggling with their sleep, it’s beyond this post to highlight all the options. Stay tuned for further articles for particular issues, but in the mean-time here are some general tips.
- Take Care of the Basics – good day and night-time routines revolving around healthy eating, a balance of activities both for achievement/productivity and time to play, regular wake-up and bed-time, and a clear wind down to bed-time are crucial for helping to regulate children emotionally, behaviourally and physiologically.
- Think about What is Contributing to My Child’s Poor Sleep – have you considered the individual, developmental and environmental factors? Is this something that will blow over with time and patience? Are there things that we as parents need to be addressing?
- Have a Plan and Stick to It – Make sure I / We are clear about how we want to proceed, and stick to it. Being uncertain and half-hearted will lead you into murky territory!
- Rewards and Enthusiasm – you are more likely to succeed in making changes if your child is on board. You are trying to do this “with” not “to” your child so that you are all on the same team.
- Harm Minimisation or Change? – For everyone’s sanity, sometimes it is best to take the fight out of things and allow a period of settling before you tackle the issue. For example, allowing children to camp in with you happily rather than arguing about it every night then giving in anyway! Tackle one thing at a time, try to create opportunities for success for you all, but once you decide on change you need to commit.
By Paul Jeffery, Sleep Matters
If you find that you could do with support to help your child sleep, please contact the Sleep Matters team on 6267 6033.
See here for information on teen sleep.