It’s the middle of the night. Through bleary eyes, tired parents scour the internet for tips and advice to improve their child’s sleep, desperate to improve sleep for everyone in the house.
It is one of the most hotly discussed topics for parents, as lack of sleep due to caring for babies and young children can be detrimental to productivity and cognition as well as mood. As such, it’s worth reviewing your child’s sleep strategy to make sure that they are getting sufficient, high-quality sleep (and you can too!).
Find out more in our guide to helping your child sleep:
Sleep is an essential building block for your child’s physical and mental wellbeing. A good night’s sleep will result in a settled, happy child who is ready for the day ahead. Healthy sleep habits improve concentration, enhance memory, regulate emotions, promote good behaviour and strengthen the immune system.
When children start school at the age of 4 or 5, they get tired quickly and rely on good sleep habits to help them recharge their batteries.
A good sleep routine will not only serve them well throughout the entirety of their schooling – it’s even been linked to improved academic achievement – but it’s just as valuable for parents who rely on getting enough sleep to regulate mood, keep them healthy, maintain productivity and keep mental health issues at bay.
These benefits continue as children enter their teens, at which point sleep deprivation increases the risk of depression, damages health, and impairs cognitive function.
Just like adults, some children need more hours of sleep, some less. While the following is just a guide, don’t get stuck on how much sleep children need as sleep quality is more important than duration.
Night wakings occur from time to time and sleep can be disturbed for a number of reasons. However, as a child grows up, cognitive developments can indicate likely causes for why their normal sleep patterns change.
4- to 6-year-olds are more likely to experience nightmares and sleep problems, partly as their imaginations grow but also in response to trauma, something unsettling or scary they have encountered or sometimes due to stress. Making dreamcatchers with your child, or encouraging them to flip over their pillow after a nightmare to symbolise a fresh start can be helpful tactics to help children deal with their nightmares.
For children 7 and up, sleep is more likely to be disturbed by genuine worry keeping them up. In the nighttime, it’s dark, and they’re tired, so their coping skills are down. It’s important that your child understands that sleep problems happen. Discourage them from getting frustrated by the lack of sleep and instead encourage them to try to focus on positive thoughts. Focusing on one thing rather than the plethora of thoughts running through their head can help. Encourage your child to listen to calming music or a story (you could ask your smart speaker to play relaxing sleep sounds) or practice a mindful breathing exercise to help induce sleep.
Are you feeling stressed and desperate that your child (and you!) are not enjoying the long and restful sleep you ought to be? Tired of the unnecessarily early mornings? Follow our checklist to ensure that all factors are in place to encourage good sleep hygiene.
A healthy sleep routine is the cornerstone of good sleep health and vital for assisting your child to wind down at the end of the day.
If your child needs 10 hours of sleep and has to be up for school at 7am, they need to be asleep by 9pm to be well-rested for the following day. Work backward and make sure that the timings of your bedtime routine aren’t eating into that all-important sleep time.
Screens before bed can affect sleep. The blue light emitted by phone and tablet screens restrains the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep-wake cycle (aka circadian rhythm). This makes it harder for children to fall asleep, and more likely to stay awake and experience irregular sleep schedules.
Make your child’s bedroom a screen-free zone to ensure they don’t disrupt normal sleep patterns. To aid your child falling asleep, you should also turn off computers, televisions, mobile phones and tablets at least one hour before bedtime (perhaps at the same time as their evening bath), to help relax their brains and prepare for sleep.
A dark, quiet bedroom is conducive to sleep. Make sure that lights are turned off (a night light left on overnight is fine) and that there are no disturbances. Keep the room tidy, screen free and at a temperature of 16-20°c. Invest in blackout blinds or thick curtains to keep daylight out and, if outside noise can be a distraction, ensure windows are double-glazed or use earplugs to guarantee a peaceful night.
Children may have difficulty falling asleep if they have been inactive throughout the day. Encouraging your child to do sports or other physical activities, go for a walk or bike-ride or join an after-school club will help them to burn off energy and make them feel tired at the end of the day.
Plus spending time outdoors, getting fresh air and exposure to natural light, will also aid kids’ sleep.
However, exercise should be avoided from one hour before bedtime as this can stimulate the body.
Caffeine is a stimulant that is detrimental to a child’s health, as it can inhibit sleep and cause your child to stay awake longer. Caffeine is present in tea, coffee, energy drinks and other fizzy drinks; the kind of drinks that contain empty calories and fill children up without delivering any nutritional value. As well as dental cavities, calcium deficiency and erosion of tooth enamel, caffeine functions as a diuretic, which can contribute to dehydration. It can also make heart palpitations or nervous disorders worse, so is counterproductive to a consistent bedtime routine.
Try to limit your child’s intake, particularly in the afternoon.
Food can influence the quality of your child’s sleep. As a general rule, a balanced diet made up of fruits, vegetables, protein and carbohydrates will provide the recommended daily intake of essential vitamins and nutrients. This supports the healthy functioning of bodily systems and contributes to establishing good sleep habits.
These are common in early school-age children and can be scary enough to wake them up.
As children get older they begin to realise that nightmares are just a dream, so usually ease. Building a dreamcatcher with your child can be a proactive way to alleviate anxieties around potential nightmares and keep sleep time a positive experience.
Most children stop napping between the ages of 3 and 5.
If your child is over 5 and still naps during the day it is worth restricting their naps to one nap, at a maximum of 20 minutes.
Letting them nap into the afternoon can start to affect bedtime and you may find it harder to get them to sleep in the evening. Consider establishing a regular naptime routine, monitoring the timing of naps, as this can play a big role in interrupting bedtime sleep.
Young children can wake routinely in the night but it is important that they learn to self-settle rather than seeking a parent for comfort or climbing into a parent’s bed.
This can be a challenge but one that’s worth persevering with and parents should remain consistent in their response.
When your child wakes and seeks you out, return them to their own bed quietly. This may need to be repeated but eventually, the child will recognise that they receive the same response each time, which encourages their ability to self-settle.
A reward chart is a good way to incentivise younger children to be independent.
If your methods still aren’t working or you’re worried about your child’s sleep patterns, make an appointment with your GP or health visitor.
Alternatively, more sleep tips and information can be found at The Sleep Charity – a national sleep helpline and website.
Or a sleep consultant can be hired privately to review your strategies and suggest sleep training techniques to improve bedtime routines. Many will ask you to start by keeping a sleep diary of night wakes and sleep duration.
A regular bedtime routine to encourage school-aged children to get a good night’s sleep includes: