There is a growing body of research that shows an increasing number of children spend their formative years chronically sleep deprived and could as a result suffer from impaired academic performance, reduced memory capacity and behavioural issues. A study in Tel Aviv showed just having an hour’s extra sleep over a five-night period increased a child’s IQ level by two years.
Insufficient sleep is also shown to strongly correlate with increased risks for a spectrum of health problems including obesity, vulnerability to colds and illnesses, accidents and emotional concerns.
Most children are getting far less sleep today than they did 30 years ago. The impact of busy lives, long days at school, after-school clubs and homework mean children’s brains are on the go right up until bedtime. Add to that the use of tablets, computers and televisions; it is easy to see why children are struggling to fall asleep.
We tend to see sleep as an easy process, whereby we simply get into bed and close our eyes, expecting to be in the land of nod in minutes. But sleep is not an on/off button. We need to quieten our minds and relax our bodies to prepare for sleep.
Luckily there are very simple steps you can take right now, if you suspect your child is not getting enough sleep.
Common problems are:
- Difficulties falling asleep
- Resistance at going to bed
- Anxieties or worries about falling asleep
- Falling asleep late despite being sent to bed on time
Seven-year-old Ellie resisted going to sleep and was up many times in the evening with endless excuses; “I’m hungry”, “I’m too hot”, “I need another kiss”. It was taking two hours for her to fall asleep and bedtime was stressful for Ellie’s parents, who had no time together in the evening. They were frequently going to sleep at the same time as Ellie.
Our sleep plan focused on two elements:
- Teaching Ellie to fall asleep within about 15 to 20 minutes.
- Creating a winding down bedtime routine.
The Sleep Plan:
The lead up to bed
About an hour before your child goes to sleep have quiet time. Tidy away the toys and turn off the TV. Research has shown light from computers, iPads etc. can interfere with the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. Use this time to discuss the day just been or the day ahead and any worries your child may have. To help your child’s busy brain wind down, there should be no chatting during the bedtime routine; just use simple instructions instead.
If your child is hungry at this time, avoid sugary foods and drinks. Instead offer foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan that causes sleepiness. The best snacks should contain carbohydrates and protein and are found in foods such as chicken or turkey with brown bread, peanut butter on whole grain cereal or low sugar cereal and milk.
Get your routine right so your child is asleep in 15 to 20 minutes.
Initially focus the bedtime routine around the time your child naturally falls asleep; even if this is very late. For example if your child usually falls asleep at 10.00pm, start your routine at 9.15pm. This way you are allowing 30 minutes for the routine and 15 minutes for them to fall asleep.
Carry out the same series of steps every night – make this routine your bedtime ritual. Having a regular routine means your child’s body will start to prepare for sleep as soon as you start this process.
If your child is falling asleep well in 15 minutes, after a few nights, start your bedtime routine 15 minutes earlier. Repeat this pattern, slowly advancing the start time of your routine until you reach the time that works best for your child.
Give your child a warm relaxing bath lasting no longer than 10 minutes. Keeping the bath to a maximum of 10 minutes means bath time doesn’t become a stimulating play time. The added bonus is coming out of the warm water allows the body to cool quickly triggering the sleep hormone melatonin. Then go straight into your child’s bedroom; going back into the living area at this time will lose the focus and magic of the routine.
Pre dim the lights in the bedroom, as this will also help with melatonin production.
Dress for bed
Have their night clothes ready for your return from the bathroom so they can quickly get dressed and climb into bed.
Read a quiet almost boring story and have a cuddle and kiss goodnight then tuck them in with their favourite soft toy so they are warm and cosy.
Now that they’re drowsy, leave the bedroom so that they learn to fall asleep independently.
In the morning let the bright light in to signal to the body to wake up and to suppress the sleep hormone melatonin.
On the first night of the plan the bedtime routine was much more relaxed and less stressful. Ellie was asleep in 10 minutes; the first time for over a year. During the next few weeks her bedtime routine remained the same and her sleeping time was slowly advanced until she was falling asleep easily by 8.30 pm. This meant she was having the correct amount of sleep for her age and her parents had some well deserved time together in the evenings.
by Mandy Gurney
RGN, RM, DIP HV. Founder Millpond Sleep Clinic