I’ve always been incredibly lucky with my children, they’re just good sleepers. As soon as they were sleeping through, I’ve always put them to bed at 7pm and let them have their full 12 hours.
I noticed my son falling asleep later and later, and randomly my daughter waking earlier and earlier, but the minute my son started big school, he went back to needing 12 hours. This got me thinking, how much sleep do our children really need? We asked Lisa at The Sleep Council to give us a bit of an insight, and I hope you find it interesting.
You just can’t slow down the growing process – one minute they’re gurgling bundles of joy, the next they’re outgrowing pairs of shoes like there’s no tomorrow. When children grow at such an alarming rate, they need a good healthy night’s sleep – lack of good quality sleep will make them irritable, un-co-operative and unable to concentrate at school.
Establishing and sticking to a bedtime routine right from the start until early teens can go a long way to minimising later problems. This is normally along the lines of teatime, followed by quiet play, bath, story and then bed. As a general rule of thumb under three’s need 12 hours sleep a night; four to six year olds between 10.5 and 11.5 hours; six to 12 year olds around 10 hours and teenagers about eight to nine hours. Unfortunately our own research showed that more than a third of seven to 14-year-olds don’t go to bed until around 9pm on a school night*.
Lack of sleep among children and teenagers is a cause for serious concern, affecting their health, wellbeing and ability to perform at school. It’s important that parents and the children understand that good sleep is as vital to overall health and wellbeing as a sensible diet and plenty of exercise.
Why can’t they sleep?
There are so many different factors which can affect children’s sleep with the following being the most common:
- Overtired: Young children don’t know when they are tired and therefore become overtired easily and demonstrate this by becoming fractious, tearful, clingy and bad tempered.
- Hungry or too full: Children who are over hungry or too full of food (especially the wrong type of food) will not settle and sleep well.
- Too thirsty: Mild dehydration can affect sleep. Also the wrong type of drinks before will not help achieve a good night’s sleep.
- Not comfortable: A new bed with a supportive mattress is a must for a growing child; an old, lumpy mattress is not likely to be conducive to quality sleep.
- Being frightened: Nightmares and night terrors can leave children distressed and less likely to go to bed.
- Overstimulated: Children who are overstimulated in the hours before bed (ie active play, use of technology) struggle to settle down and sleep.
Other influences are illness (actual or impending), changes or stress in the family, holidays and fear.
Night terrors, suffered by small children, nightmares and bedwetting can all play a role in sleep deprivation. And if a child isn’t getting enough sleep, then the parents probably aren’t either – causing increasing stresses among the whole family. Parents should do their best to get to the bottom of any worries the child may have and put their minds at rest if possible. One parent solved their child’s nightmares about fires with a toy fire engine under the bed! If they persist, you should take your child to see your GP to ensure there is no serious problem.
Below are some of the most frequent children’s sleep problems:
Occasional nightmares are common in children, especially before the age of seven. Triggers for nightmares in children include indigestion, a scary experience (for example watching a frightening TV programme before bedtime), starting an illness, or worry. If nightmares occur, parents should examine the bedtime routine to see if something needs changing.
When a child has a nightmare, they shouldn’t be woken up, just spoken to gently. They may carry on sleeping; if they wake, they may not know where they are and may babble incoherently. Carry on reassuring him and if he wakes then take him to the loo and give him a sip of water before taking him back to bed. In the morning try to find out what is worrying the child.
Around 15% of all five year olds, and 5% of all 10 year olds wet their beds. And about 60% of children who wet the bed are boys. Medical causes of bedwetting are rare. Genetic factors are important – the child is more likely to wet the bed if one or both of his parents did so. Treatments include bladder training and conditioning methods – such as a signalling device which will wake the child as he starts to urinate.
About one in 10 children between the ages of five and 12 walk in their sleep at least once; 6% sleepwalk once a week or more. It is usually a phase that children go through and rarely has a medical cause. Boys sleepwalk more than girls. A sleepwalker should not be woken. The parent should just lead the child back to his bed. Naturally if there is potential physical danger, then the child must be gently woken, and the environment made as safe as possible (for example, by putting gates at the top of stairs).
What are easy mistakes for parents to make in trying to solve it and why don’t they work? What should you do?
Like adults, children’ sleep times can vary so don’t feel anxious if your child isn’t asleep by a set time. but as long as they are lying down and are quiet, it’s promoting a relaxing environment.
If your child can’t sleep don’t be tempted to get them back out of bed, instead encourage them to be quiet and lie down – this will help promote a relaxing environment.
Try not to get cross with your child if they’re refusing to go to sleep. This only aggravates the situation and doesn’t aid the relaxing atmosphere before bed. This isn’t to say you should let them get away with being troublesome – be firm but in control.
Ensure the environment is right for sleep – it should be cool, quiet, dark and free from distraction. Ideally computers, gaming machines and TVs should be banned from the bedroom but if that’s unlikely keep them away from the bed and try to limit the use of these devices just before bedtime! It’s also extremely important to make sure the bed is comfortable and supportive for a growing child – many parents think nothing of spending a fortune on shoes for a child’s growing feet but scrimp on a mattress! An old, lumpy mattress can contribute to back problems later in life and may affect allergies such as asthma or eczema.
The Sleep Council’s top tip:
Our number one tip would be to have a proper wind down routine and ban the use of gadgets in the hour before bed. Use the time to either read to your child, let them read to you, make up stories or ask them to tell you about the day.
- Children who slept near a small screen experience get 20.6 minutes less sleep than those who don’t. (Massachusetts Childhood Obesity Research Demonstration Study, 2015)
- Adding just one hour of extra sleep decreases the chances of being overweight or obese by around 30% (Paul Veugelers, professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta in Canada, 2012)
- Sleepless nights has contributed to the rise in teen depression (Columbia University Medical Center in New York)
- Up to two-thirds of children do not get enough sleep and have missed out on as much as 4,500 hours by their seventh birthday (Researchers from Loughborough University, 2006)
- There is a link between lack of sleep and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) in children (University of Helsinki, 2009)
- An extra hour of sleep a night can boost youngster’s alertness and brainpower (Dr Avi Sadeh, Department of Psychology at Tel Aviv University, 2003)
From Lisa Artis of The Sleep Council. For more information or advice visit www.sleepcouncil.org.uk or if you would like a copy of our free Goodnight Guide for Children please call our leaflet line on 0845 018 7923.
Notes to editors:
*Based on research for The Sleep Council by Opinion Matters between 27/07/2012 and 03/08/2012 amongst a panel resulting in 1,006 grandparents of 7-14 year old respondents.