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Learning to sleep well: teaching your kids healthy sleep habits

November 28, 2011

In our practice at the Pediatric Pulmonology and Sleep Center at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, we often see children who are having difficulty sleeping. We know very well the tired eyes of parents who are worried, anxious and frustrated because their children aren’t sleeping well.  We work with each family to identify whether a child has any medical problems that may be affecting their sleep. We also work with their parents to teach healthy sleep habits. Whether we know it or not, we are teaching our children how to sleep, and we encourage parents to learn healthy habits that set their children on a path to healthy sleep for a lifetime.

Why is sleep important?

Sleep is not simply a break from the day, but it’s actually an active state that helps maintain and restore our health. During development in infants and children, sleep is one of the primary activities of the brain, and it’s necessary for optimal performance.  Sufficient sleep is essential for all of us, but it’s especially important in children. During early childhood, children may spend close to equal amounts of time awake and asleep.

Sleep restores energy, helps strengthen physical and mental health, and boosts alertness, learning and decision-making.

What impact can poor sleep or sleep disorders have on your child?

Sleeplessness in children and other childhood sleep disorders are common and cause a significant amount of parental concerns. These sleep problems can be chronic or long-lasting, may affect the child’s overall development, and worsen other medical problems.  Poor sleep can have a major negative impact on the child and his family with potential to lead to long-term medical consequences.  Most children that have long-term sleep deficits or inadequate sleep can eventually develop behavioral and learning issues.  For example, it is well-documented in the medical literature that children that have poor quality sleep secondary to undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can develop poor school performance and symptoms that can mimic attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  Thankfully, most pediatric sleep problems are preventable and treatable.

How much sleep do infants and children need?

Adequate sleep requirements mainly depend on your infant’s or child’s age. As your child grows, the amount they need to sleep decreases.  Newborns should average 16-20 hours of sleep, and infants should average 14- 15 hours. Toddlers need about 12-13 hours of sleep whereas preschool children should average 11- 12 hours. School-age children should get 10-11 hours, and teenagers need around 9 hours of sleep per night, so don’t let those teenagers convince you otherwise!  Remember that these are average ranges based on studies.  It’s very important to understand that children as individuals vary in how they tolerate inadequate sleep or sleep disturbances, meaning that some children may be affected more than others.

 What are some hints that a child is not sleeping enough?

Potential warning signs of inadequate sleep are: problems going to bed or falling asleep, frequent night awakenings, difficulty waking up in the morning with lack of a refreshed feeling, excessive daytime sleepiness and behavior issues such as: hyperactivity, poor impulse control, inattention, poor concentration/ poor decision-making, moodiness, irritability and poor school performance.

Here are some healthy sleep tips for parents to help their children sleep enough and sleep well:

1)   Choose a consistent bedtime and wake time for your child and set limits, even on the weekends.

2)   Develop and maintain the same relaxing bedtime routine.  Avoid the use of any electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime.

  • consider reading to your child
  • consider giving them a warm bath or shower
3)   Create a soothing, relaxing sleep environment with the bed being used only for sleeping. Also make sure the room is free of any distractions such as TVs, phones, computers or electronics.

4)   Avoid naps, caffeine and large drinks in the late afternoon or evening.

5)   Dim household lights at night and let in good sunlight in the morning.

6)   Consult your child’s doctor with any sleep concerns or warning signs.

When it comes to sleep, as in most areas of parenting, consistency and patience are the keys to success.  Know what is right for your child and stick to it. They (and you) will be glad you did.