An expert’s guide to getting your sweet darling cutie pies to go to bed.
How many hours do children need to sleep? Although it depends on the age of the child, one general answer is now clear: more than you think.
Sleep loss affects everyone, but the impact is far greater on children who are still growing. This is an area where you cannot be creative or believe your child is an exception.
All children need to sleep more than an adult. Adults require between seven and nine hours of sleep every night. If they don’t get this amount, they are building up a ‘sleep debt’. This is not a metaphor: if you have a debt you have to repay it in sleep. So if you miss two hours sleep one night, you need to sleep two hours more the next night.
How much sleep does your child need?
Birth–12 months old: 14–18 hours per day
1–3 years old: 12–14 hours per day
3–6 years old: 11–12 hours per day
7–12 years old: 10–11 hours per day
12–18 years old: 8–10 hours per day
Every child differs, but don’t let anyone tell you that their child manages well with much less sleep. There are magic numbers when it comes to sleep, and you have just read them. Keep them in mind, for they are essential to your child’s overall health and well-being.
If your child is getting less sleep than these amounts, then you need to make changes.
Sleep is not just rest. During sleep, the brain is doing a great deal of important work that it cannot do when we are awake. In fact, new research suggests that chronic sleep deprivation can lead to an increased susceptibility to dementia and other forms of cognitive decline. Important clean-up work takes place during sleep. Another important fact is that children have had enough sleep if they wake on their own and are rested and happy. If you have to wake them to get them ready for kindy or school, or they wake up grumpy and tired, they have not had enough sleep. Bring their bedtime forward to allow them enough sleep. The exception to this is teenagers. When children become teenagers, their sleep cycles change and make them want to go to bed late and get up even later – but they still need to get 8 to 10 hours every night.
It’s not just the amount, but the quality of sleep that matters as well. Falling asleep out of exhaustion in a chair or in the back of a car is not the same as sleeping in a comfortable bed in a well-aired, quiet room. Naturally a comfortable mattress (I recommend organic latex, wool or cotton mattresses) makes a difference, as does a comfortable pillow. (Avoid a pillow stuffed with artificial materials.)
How to prepare for a good night’s sleep
The more exercise a child has during the day – especially in green outdoor spaces – the better he or she will sleep at night. Melatonin, the sleep hormone, is produced in the dark, but only if you have had exposure to natural, outdoor light during the day.
We are evolved to be awake when the sun is up and to go to sleep when it gets dark. With daylight saving it stays light until late, keeping children up later at night, so consider getting blackout blinds or curtains to use during the summer months.
A calm and predictable bedtime routine can help children settle to sleep. Find what works for you and don’t wait until your child is overtired and crying before beginning the routine. Start early. If you rush, the stress hormones will increase and your child will become more alert rather than quieter.
A good bedtime routine for a younger child may look like this: dinner, bath or shower, into pyjamas, brushing teeth, story time, lullabies, hugs and off to sleep.
For older children, let’s say a 12-year-old, the routine would include stopping access to all screens (computer, TV, tablets, phones) from about 6 pm, then having dinner, a shower, brushing teeth, reading in bed, and off to a restful sleep.
Some children love having a parent or sibling lie down with them or sit by their bed while they fall asleep. I don’t have a problem with this. After all, we evolved as a social species and used to sleep together, first in trees, then in caves, protecting each other from wild beasts.
Switch off any screens at least two hours before bedtime
Melatonin is the hormone we produce in our brain when it gets dark, and it makes us sleepy. Any bright light, and in particular the blue light emitted by digital screens, such as computers, mobile phones, tablets and TVs, interferes with the production of melatonin.
If your child struggles to go to sleep, dim all artificial lights or turn them off at sunset or about two hours before bedtime. You could even light some candles instead – they emit a gentle orange light, which does not interfere with melatonin production.
Another trick is to download f.lux to your computer, which will turn the blue light off after sunset and change the background to orange light, similar to candle light. Your child will sleep best in total darkness – use curtains or blinds to ensure that no light enters the bedroom. A nightlight is OK to use for nervous children, but it should be very dim and not illuminate the entire room.
An A-Z To Children’s Health by Dr Leila Masson is available at Unity Books.