How Much Sleep Do Kids Need?
Sleep. It’s something we always seem to need more of. And when one member of the family (especially the younger members) are having trouble falling or staying asleep, it can translate into sleep deprived parents too! While sleep routines will change with each age and stage, ensuring our kids get enough in terms of quantity and quality is an important, although sometimes challenging, part of our parenting journey.
Sleep is integral to both physical and psychological health. When children sleep, their bodies and nervous systems are regenerating, growing, and changing. Their brains are also busy detoxifying, consolidating information, and solidifying memory. Sleep is key to learning and our kiddos do a lot of learning every single day. While we know that lack of sleep can contribute to a higher risk of obesity, inflammation, and lowered immune function, it can also mean an increase in behavioural problems like impulsivity and tantrums, inability to focus, and decreased alertness. Oftentimes an overtired child is even harder to put to sleep, and this can be especially true in babies and toddlers, making establishing a consistent bedtime routine with children extremely helpful. And while each child will have their own unique “magic number” for sleep, the Canadian Paediatric Society do provide blanket guidelines for hours of sleep in each age group. These recommendations include a combination of nighttime sleep and daytime naps.
- Infants (4–12 months old) 12–16 hours
- Toddlers (1–2 years old) 11–14 hours
- Children (3–5 years old) 10–13 hours
- Children (6–12 years old) 9–12 hours
- Teenagers (13–18 years old) 8–10 hours
ROUTINE, ROUTINE, ROUTINE
For newborns, a sleep routine is unnecessary and you typically follow the baby’s cues. Eventually though, often around the 3 to 6 month mark, sleep habits will become more predictable and you’ll get to know how much they need, and recognize when your baby is tired. (Beware of the 4 month sleep regression though!) At some point in this age range you can also start to establish a bedtime routine that works for both of you with the following tips:
The time your child goes to bed should be consistent, especially once they start daycare or school, as they may be expected to awaken earlier than their natural tendency. Choose a bedtime that will provide enough sleep for your child’s age, and factor in naptime length if your child still naps.
Bath time offers a great opportunity to relax and soothe. Consider adding some herbal infusions to the tub water to promote sleep, like chamomile, lavender, rose, and lemongrass. Your naturopath or herbalist may be a good resource for this one!
Include a foot or back rub into your child’s bedtime routine if you find your kiddo has a hard time winding down even after a nice warm bath. Not only is it a great way to calm the nervous system, but getting close promotes relaxation.
Good Night Moon.
Spending some quiet time together before bed, reading a favourite story and snuggling provide a chance to create connection and bring about sleep.
A cool and dark bedroom ensures a cozy place conducive to sweet dreams. Adding in a favourite blanket or stuffed animal may be helpful as well.
“I CAN’T SLEEP!”
As your child grows you may find there are times when sleep is elusive. If your little one is having trouble falling asleep there are a few key things to consider.
Perhaps there has been a change in routine, school setting, social circle, or extra-curricular activity that may need to be addressed. Providing an opportunity to allow your child to open up and share their feelings may be all it takes to get back to those previously established bedtimes. It's also helpful to know what's causing a sleep regression.
A 2009 study found that the less physically active children were throughout the day, the longer it took them to fall asleep at night. This correlation emphasizes the importance of adequate physical activity not only on body weight, bone health, cardiovascular health, and mood, but also on the quality of sleep in children. If your child starts to have a hard time falling asleep at night, consider their activity levels. Some ways to encourage more activity might include scheduling outdoor play, joining an organized sports team or dance class, going for a family walk, bike ride, or roller blade, or asking your older child to walk the dog as one of their designated tasks. Be creative and find things that work for you and your family, making it fun for everyone.
While watching a show or movie, playing on the computer or tablet, or sifting through a social media feed is increasingly common for kids, it does have an impact on sleep, especially if done too close to bedtime. The blue light emitted from screens suppresses melatonin, the hormone integral to sleep onset, making dreamland a difficult conquest! To avoid this, avoid screen time, including TV, for at least one hour before bedtime. Learn more about creating a healthy balance between screen time and real time.
Dining for Dreams.
Ensuring your child’s dinner contains a starchy carbohydrate, like sweet potato, acorn squash, and other root veggies can contribute to a better night’s sleep. Check in to see if your teens are consuming caffeine-containing beverages like coffee, energy drinks, black teas, or dark colas as these may be the culprit behind their ability to fall asleep. Be conscious of any foods that may contain FDA Yellow Dye No. 5 (tartrazine) and the preservative benzoic acid, both of which are commonly found in processed foods and have been shown to increase hyperactivity in children.
If your child needs a bedtime snack, go easy on the spiciness, sweetness, or richness, as these are more likely to upset the digestive tract or be a little too stimulating to promote restful sleep. Instead, make it something light that contains fibre, healthy fat, and a bit of protein. An apple with some almond butter or a small serving of unsweetened yogurt are great options, as are foods rich in the amino acid tryptophan, like pumpkin seeds and oats, which may be helpful for bringing about healthy sleep.
Magnesium is an essential mineral that is involved in over 300 processes in the body and is found in high concentrations in the muscles, bones, and soft tissues. Although magnesium deficiency is rare, ensuring a magnesium-rich diet may be a helpful way to address issues with sleep. Foods abundant in magnesium include spinach and other leafy greens, sunflower seeds, dairy, cashews, almonds, beans, avocados, and bananas. Supplementing with magnesium may also help promote sleep. Check with your healthcare provider to see if it’s right for your little one.
If your household is on the noisier side or you find your little one wakes easily to everyday sounds, a white noise machine may be exactly what you need. These are widely available and work very well for some children (and grownups!). Here's more on helpful sleep techniques for restless kids.
“I’VE HAD A BAD DREAM!”
Nightmares can be a big deal when it comes to our children’s sleep and can be tricky to solve. It may be a good idea to start by reviewing what your child is consuming on TV or tablets. If there is a theme to the nightmares, perhaps something they have watched has triggered an emotional response or caused some confusion. Nightmares may also be caused by stress and/or anxiety around life changes: did they recently change schools, lose a pet, or have a conflict with a friend? The best approach here is often just talking your child through their fear, offering reassurance and lots of cuddles.
If your child is prone to nightmares and you haven’t been able to identify any definitive triggers, you can also help guide them into relaxation (and hopefully better sleep) with gentle techniques like gratitude awareness. Older children may enjoy having their own special journal in which they simply write three things each day for which they are grateful. Whether the three things are as simple as being thankful for soccer practice or meatloaf for dinner, or as profound as being grateful for love, the key is being consistently focused on positivity and gratitude. For younger children, a great way to encourage gratitude is by building it in to your dinner or nighttime routine. Each day ask your child to tell you about: the favourite part of their day, something they learned, and something they found difficult. This encourages open dialogue for the whole family to practice gratitude, reflection, and conflict resolution. As an added bonus, after only 21 days of expressing gratitude, the brain will more consistently pick out the positives and focus on them! How incredible is that?
Acupressure is a gentle technique which involves placing light pressure over specific points on the body to help rebalance energy and promote the circulation of blood, lymphatic fluid, and qi (the thread/vital energy connecting all beings according to Traditional Chinese Medicine). It can be a nice way to use the senses as a way to connect back into the body. Particularly useful for supporting a calm mind and a peaceful sleep, especially if nightmares are an issue, is a point called pericardium 6 (PC 6) which is located on the palm side of the wrist, about three finger widths from the main wrist crease toward the arm in between the two prominent tendons. Your naturopath or Chinese medicine practitioner can work with you to develop an acupressure protocol that will take your child’s unique symptoms into account.
Seek the care of your primary healthcare provider if your child tends to snore heavily at night and seems particularly tired during the day as this may be related to enlarged adenoids, tonsils, or sleep apnea. Though light, occasional snoring can be normal, sleep apnea is a condition in which the child stops breathing for a short period of time during sleep, and requires further evaluation.
It may also be worth consulting your healthcare provider if your child is suffering from night terrors, especially if they’re negatively impacting your child’s quality of sleep. Although quite common, they are distinct from nightmares in that the child might seem to be awake with eyes open, and may talk, cry or scream, thrash their arms and legs, and breathe rapidly. Night terrors typically occur between the ages of 4 to 18 and are usually something that will be outgrown.
A good night’s sleep can at times be elusive, and finding out what works best for you and your child may take some trial and error. Prioritizing sleep as a major determinant of health and development is necessary to help set our children up for success. If you’re struggling with healthy bedtime habits, know you’re not alone! Start by implementing one or two things at a time and the rest will often start to fall into place. Wishing you and your littles the sweetest dreams and healthiest of days.
For further reading visit ecoparent.ca/TWF/WIN19.