Sara Westgreen is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck.com. She sleeps on a king size bed in Texas, where she defends her territory against cats all night. A mother of three, she enjoys board games and getting as much sleep as she can get her hands on. She shares her advice about the importance of sleep to children.
Parents often invest a lot of time in helping young children sleep. Babies are cuddled back to sleep in the middle of the night. Toddlers are coerced into going to bed at the proper time. School-aged children have set bedtimes (often earlier than they want to go to bed). Is all this necessary?
For years, people have worried about their children not sleeping enough. A study showed that over the last century, children tend to get about half an hour less sleep than is recommended. However, over time, both the recommendations for the amount of sleep and the number of hours children sleep has gone down. So although it’s common for parents to worry about their child’s rest, it’s also true that the number of hours that children sleep has gone down.
Parents worry for a good reason because lack of sleep, unfortunately, has a negative effect on children. Kids with persistent sleep problems have lower scores in behavior, language, and learning. They also had poorer health than children who got enough sleep. Luckily, getting enough sleep is often enough to reverse many of these problems.
Children with just 27 more minutes of sleep have better emotional regulation and alertness. This benefit can translate to higher scores and better health. Just half an hour more sleep is all that it takes to improve.
How can parents make sure that their kids get the sleep that they need to function at a high level? The key is to develop good sleep hygiene. Like brushing your teeth, getting good sleep is a habit that needs to be repeated for maximum effect.
Sleep hygiene starts with a good bedtime routine. Kids often need a signal that it’s time to get ready for bed. Calming activities, such as reading a book with your child or having them take a hot bath, are good to do before bedtime. If you repeat the same activity every night at the same time, the children will learn that the activity is a signal that it’s time to go to bed. Going to bed at the same time every night attunes their minds to that hour as “sleeping time.’
Another way to make sure that the brain is ready for sleep is to remove screens at least an hour before bed. Although kids watching tv looks like a calming activity, the reality is that the blue light from most devices tricks their brain into thinking it’s daytime. The result is that the kids aren’t ready to go to bed because their brains haven’t released the sleep-inducing hormone that naturally comes at night.
Finally, kids need a comfortable sleeping environment to stay sleeping through the night. Bedtime is only the beginning. Kids’ rooms should be cool and dark at night. Choose a mattress that’s supportive and won’t wake them in the night. Add light-blocking curtains and muffle sounds with rugs and pillows to keep the area sleep-friendly.
By taking steps to teach your children good sleep hygiene, you can help both their physical health and mental sharpness at school.