Why it’s so important for children to get enough sleep

Sleep is a subject which I am pretty passionate about. I absolutely love my sleep.
I have the most comfortable bed in the world! I am, however, a bit of a night owl though. I am most definitely not a morning person, but can get up early if I feel motivated to get things done. With the help of a few cups of caffeine in the mornings I’m reasonable…I think!?

Apart from the fact that I love sleep, I also know the significant health benefits of sleep.
Throughout my work career I have become convinced that most children are just not getting enough sleep. In my recent work in youth suicide prevention, sleep was a significant issue for depressed teens.

I believe sleep is one of the top health issues for all children, from babies to teens.
Along with physical exercise, and good food, sleep is crucial to growing children and teens mental health. I don’t mean just any sleep either. I mean quality sleep and I mean enough sleep. If we can encourage, in fact insist, that our children develop a culture of healthy sleep habits then this will set them up for many more health and well-being outcomes than you might expect.

I encourage any readers to take on this challenge:

Here’s what I recommend; if your child is aged 5-12 and doesn’t get to bed until 8 or 9 pm, then I suggest you have a trial period of getting them to bed by 7pm, with a half hour reading/quiet time in bed (I recommend cuddles, massage, tickles, parent reading during that time) then lights out at 7.30pm. Do this for two weeks and see if you notice any difference. I’m willing to bet there would be. I’d love to hear from you about it. For some families this requires quite a change in routine. It means eating earlier, getting homework sorted faster/earlier or in the morning. It may even mean less after school activities (great! Read my previous post about this).

Children who get enough sleep tend to be able to manage themselves better. It just makes sense doesn’t it!

There are many benefits to getting enough sleep, as we ourselves as adults know when we don’t get the sleep we need. If, over time, lack of sleep accumulates it has a significant impact. This is even more so for children.

Some of the negative impacts for children are; concentration, behaviour, sibling relationships, parent-child relationships, mood, coping and academic ability. Also the ability to respond appropriately when things go wrong and the ability to bounce back (resiliency) can be significantly affected. Importantly for parents is a child’s ability to respond well, or reasonably well, when receiving behavioural correction or discipline. This can be well improved with enough sleep!
Furthermore, according to the experts, during sleep time children’s brains are very busy processing all they have learnt that day and filing it all away in the appropriate places.

If we get enough sleep and start to manage the above things better, this can lead to feelings of competency and self-confidence. We all know the positive spin offs from this.

I know for myself when I don’t get good quality and quantity of sleep things seem so much worse than they actually might be. I’m not particularly optimistic when I’m sleep deprived and I am particularly grumpy. Oh yes AND I don’t receive criticism very well at all when I am overtired!

Over the years I have come to think that we have wildly unrealistic expectations of children of all ages around their behaviour and moods when they have not had the sleep they require. We as adults are the ones that must hold the boundaries and rules around this and not be influenced by what the child themselves want, or what others are doing.

My oldest son used to be upset about our strict bedtime routine and time, as it was so much earlier than his friends – who at 11 and 12 years old were up until 9.30-10.30pm. I understand that this may be difficult for him…until we talk about it and he gets to understand how he feels and the impact of late nights and not enough sleep on him. Once he became really clear about this and conscious of how he feels and being able to link the two things, he stopped asking and even self manages his bedtime. We as parents know that his positive outlook on life, ability to bounce back and social nature, as well as general positive behaviour, is well maintained by the fact that he consistently gets 9-10 hours sleep a night (he’s almost 14). My two youngest 8-10 years old get 11-12 hours per night.

We all know that those little brains are growing at a rapid rate. When you think about that, along with the huge amount of learning that is going on, the physical growth and activity that children are involved in, then it is no wonder they require a large amount of sleep to be able to manage all this without things falling apart.

A while ago I spoke with a parent about their child’s behaviour. They were pulling out their hair with frustration around their child’s non-complaint behaviour, particularly at bedtime. It was taking them about 3 hours to get him to bed! By 11 pm everyone was exhausted and finally went to bed! School behaviour and academic ability were suffering but the two were not being seen as linked due to other impacting factors. All in all parental confidence was at an all-time low and they were at a loss as to what to do. Naturally parenting confidence significantly impacts on children. The child starts to feel well and truly disapproved of!
In a case like this there are a multitude of clinical assessments that could be done, however if we just go ‘back to basics’ the most obvious thing to me is that this kid is just not getting enough sleep. Each night he was losing 2 hours sleep which his brain desperately needed to be able to function well. Over a week that is 14 hours which is basically a whole nights worth of sleep per week lost. The cumulative effect of this on an immature and growing brain is immense.

So in summary I thought it might be helpful to give you a guide for the recommended amount of sleep by age for children:
0 – 3 years children need 14-15 hours sleep a day
3 – 6 years need about 12 hours a day
7 – 12 years need about 10 hours a day
12 – 18 years need about 8-9 hours a day

I hope this guide is helpful, but it is important to remember it is a guide only. Some children will require more. I know mine do.
There is also other benefits to putting children to bed early such as letting them have ‘quiet time’, learning to relax and unwind on their bed. You will find they benefit from quiet and relax time, and you also will benefit from this child free time at night. Wait and see what happens for everyone…

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