The Rest of the Story: Why Kids Need Sleep

It’s hard to overstate the importance of sleep at any age, but especially in children. We all know that our kids (and we as parents) function worse after a bad night’s sleep, but there are also studies looking at average amounts of sleep and various outcomes. For example, a 2011 study in Korea found a correlation between “sleep debt” and poor performance on attention-requiring tasks. A 2012 study found children who got more sleep had less emotional lability and less impulsive behavior. A myriad of other benefits of sleep have been proposed in the medical literature as well.

But here are some alarming facts. According to the 2014 National Sleep Foundation poll, 34 percent of parents reported that scheduled evening activities pose challenges to their child getting a good night's sleep, while 41 percent say these activities challenge their own good night's sleep.

This is no small thing. More kids (and parents) than ever are sleep deprived, in part because screens in the evening make it difficult to "wind down." So, parents, listen up: teaching your child productive sleep habits now will be invaluable to his or her healthy growth and development and the future. And, of course, parents with healthy sleepers get the added bonus of a few extra Z's for themselves, too.

How much sleep does your child need?

The National Sleep Foundation recommends:

  • 11-13 hours for preschoolers

  • 9-12 hours for elementary students

  • 8-9 hours for teens and adolescents

4 Ways to improve your child’s sleep:

  1. Do proper prep. Did you know you can structure the daytime to make sleep come more naturally for your child? Encourage physical activity during the day, but avoid it for at least an hour before bedtime. If possible, make your child's room a calmer place with fewer toys (and no screens, but we'll get to that) and other things that can be a distraction, and make a child feel that their bed is a place for play rather than rest. Avoid caffeinated drinks for children altogether, but especially in the afternoon.

  2. Get in the groove. Kids in general do much better when a routine is established. And this goes for parents as well. Reserve specific activities only for bedtime so they associate them with sleep. For example, reading a certain book, or listening to a specific CD. Model healthy sleep habits as well: get yourself ready for bed, even if you aren’t planning on sleeping right away, so the kids understand that it’s time to get ready to rest. Keep the lights in the house dim and the noise level down. Keep consistent bedtimes and wake-up times, even on weekends.

  3. Lose the screens. This is a big one, something I talk to families about every day. The impact of screens on sleep amount and quality is enormous. Studies continue to show that the presence of big screens (TVs) and small screens (phones) in the bedroom reduce the amount and quality of sleep in kids of all ages. Perhaps the best, simplest intervention I can recommend to families struggling with their child’s sleep is to remove all screens from the room. 

  4. Prioritize sleep. Cutting back on activities that go past your child’s bedtime (or make it so that the bedtime routine is significantly delayed) is okay. Teach your child the importance of sleep. Read this post to them, if you like!

Making sleep a priority for your children, and yourself, can have tremendous benefits, and small changes can make a big difference. So, shut down whatever you are reading this on, and get to bed already!

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