I don’t know about you, but when I am low on sleep, I am Grouchy – with a capital “G.” I can control the grouches – most times. I know what the problem is; I am an adult and have learned a few coping skills over my many years; I know it is not the fault of the person who is close enough to aim a ‘grouch’ at.
But is it fair to expect my children to control the ‘grouches’ when they are tired? After all, they often don’t know what the problem is. They are still learning coping skills and often have no clue why they feel so crummy. And why are we battling the grouches at all??? We could all be so much more cheerful – not to mention healthy, alert, and well-behaved – with consistent good nights’ sleep.
Studies have shown that on average, children in the U.S. are several hours short on sleep each week. This NEGATIVELY and MEASURABLY affects many areas of their lives, including behavior. They are less coordinated, more accident-prone, have slower reaction times, and are more frequently ill.
Scholastic achievement decreases – loss of one hour of sleep nightly is equivalent to loss of TWO years cognitive maturation and development. It affects memories – tired children remember fewer positive events but more negative ones due to the effects on different areas of the brain.
Lack of sleep negatively affects interactions with others, weight, ability to focus, emotional stability, and the quality of sleep when finally in bed.
Lack of sleep affects children far more than adults because of the tremendous amount of development occurring in the growing brain – which happens mainly during sleep.
Tips for Better Sleep
With a little – or maybe a lot of – work, we can usually overcome the obstacles to our children’s lack of sleep. A good night’s sleep doesn’t begin at bed time; it is affected by actions occurring ALL day.
- Wake up time – getting up about the same time every morning – including weekends (groan) helps set the body’s biological clock so you awaken naturally. If your child is up late, a longer nap or earlier bedtime are better solutions than waking significantly later.
- Breakfast – a healthy breakfast, free from tension, sets the tone for the day and translates into a better night’s sleep.
- Caffeine – caffeine is a stimulant, increasing activity in many parts of the brain. It reduces both sleep time and the depth of sleep and can cause tension and anxiety. A soda at lunch can affect your child at bedtime due to the amount of time it takes caffeine to be processed by the body. When a younger child consumes a can of soda, it is like an adult drinking four cups of coffee! Caffeine is not only found in soda and coffee, but also in chocolate and many medications.
- Schedule – is there too much packed into the day? This can cause stress, a definite sleep detractor. Be flexible and ready to cancel something if tensions get too high.
- Exercise – Studies show that physical activity during the day promotes healthy sleep. The only caveat is that exercise too close to bedtime can wake a child up.
- Television – TV at night provides enough light that the body’s biological clock is not totally convinced it is time to sleep. Television watching, especially right before bedtime, is associated with sleep onset delay, frequent waking, and anxiety. Falling asleep in front of TV would seem to negate this finding, but children tend to wake up more and sleep less deeply when they fall asleep in front of television. Studies show that a television in a child’s bedroom is a powerful predictor of sleep disturbance.
- Bedtime rituals – Children need and like consistency. Bedtime rituals, including brushing teeth, reading stories and back rubs, signal the body and mind to prepare for sleep. But the most important part of the ritual is probably getting to bed at the same time every night – including weekends.
- Bath – For many families, baths provide a fun transition between the day’s activities and sleep and help give the body time to unwind.
- Snack – hunger can wake a child up at night. A high protein and/or whole grain carbohydrate snack lasts longer than a sweet and fruit lasts longer than sugar, which causes a spike in energy followed by a crash. There is nothing left so your child gets hungry. Sugar has also been associated with nightmares.
- Calm – if you are calm yourself, it will help your child be calm. A child who is not calm will have trouble falling and staying asleep.
- Sleep environment – the optimal sleep environment is dark, cool, and comfortable.
It important to listen to your children. They may tell you in words or they may tell you by their actions that they are not getting enough sleep. If this is the case, discuss it with them. They may come up with novel solutions; if they feel a part of the solution, they are far more likely to buy into the plan. If they are too young, explain that you are trying something new. At any age, help them identify their emotions and what tensions may have built up over the day or week that may interfere with a good night’s sleep.
As with all parenting issues, you know your child best. Feel free to experiment and see what works best for your individual children, remembering that each child’s sensitivities will differ.
I’ll close with a quote from President Obama – who, whether you agree with his politics or not – has the right idea about sleep. He thinks that children getting enough sleep is so important to their education that he tied the two together in a July 17, 2009 speech, “…we have to accept our responsibility to help them (our children) learn. That means putting away the Xbox — (applause) — and putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour…”
How much is enough sleep?
On average in a 24 hour period, children need the following (including naps):
- Toddlers – 12-14 hours
- Pre-schoolers – 11-13 hours
- Elementary schoolers – 10-11 hours
- Teens – 9+ hours
by Karen Eble, Certified Parenting Educator
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