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Nerdy Parenting’s Comprehensive Guide to Helping Kids Sleep Better

Establishing and maintaining healthy sleep patterns is one of the most important things we can do for our children. Sleep impacts nearly every area of functioning. When I assess anxiety, depression, emotional regulation, behavioural problems or any other concern related to mental health in childhood- sleep is one of the first things I ask about. Also, children’s sleep concerns can dramatically influence parent’s sleep patterns, capacity and the quality of life experienced within the home.

Before we talk about how much sleep children need and how to help them get it, it’s important to consider how sleep has changed historically for humans. Prior to the invent of artificial lighting and debatably smart phones- humans typically slept in direct conjunction with natural light cycles. Initially, and still practiced in some hunter-gatherer societies, humans slept in small groups around a fire. Safety was determined by the presence of the group and the maintenance of the fire. As we found or built better structures and managed temperature and light, the necessity of sleeping in groups next to a crackling fire diminished.

The experience of being ushered to an isolated and quiet area- void of any evidence of human interaction, cues of group safety, or natural light sources is strange when contrasted with our species’ development and would likely be really unpleasant for our ancestors. As it turns out- learning to sleep well in these conditions is also quite an adjustment for many children and youth who, like us, have a brain that closely resembles those of our ancestors from about 125,000 years ago.

Further, children’s brains and bodies are works in progress. As their physiology changes and matures, the sleep requirements and the way they interact with sleep changes. We ask a lot from our little neurological construction zones. Sleep is vital during development and a lack of sleep can detrimentally and dramatically impact development in ways that shift how they behave (or misbehave) and their ability to process and integrate the information flooding them constantly.

Sleep patterns are complex and individual. How well a child can sleep is a composite of a multitude of converging factors. For parents, helping a child sleep better is often a balancing act of these different factors. Our goal in this post will be to talk about how much sleep kids need and some of the most beneficial strategies in helping them achieve that. This is a huge topic so as you read on know that there is much more that can be said on it but we will do our best.

What is sleep?

Sleep is often viewed as a period of inactivity- and physically and consciously this tends to be accurate. Sleep is a gap in conscious activity. However, during sleep the brain is very active. Sleep has been linked to significant memory and neurodevelopment tasks. Essentially, while sleeping the brain is doing necessary maintenance and organization. During sleep the brain strengthens neural pathways and tidies up unused or unrefined pathways. During childhood the brain is rapidly changing and organizing and sleep is essential in this.

Sleep is also a time for the body to rest and repair itself from the demands of the day. Children's bodies are rapidly changing a growing and sleep is essential in this process. Sadly, the reality is that most people are not getting the sleep they need. Parents are at the top of this list. A lack of sleep is one of the number one complaints made about the transition to parenthood. Helping our children sleep better often directly relates to essential improvements in our own sleep.

How much sleep do children need? 

How much sleep is needed by a child varies depending on age. The American Association of Paediatrics suggests the following guidelines based on age:

Age of the Child                   Hours of sleep per 24 hours
4 to 12 Months 12 to 16 hours (including naps)
1 to 2 years 11 to 14 hours (including naps)
3 to 5 years 10 to 13 hours (including naps)
6 to 12 years 9 to 12 hours
13 to 18 years 8 to 10 hours

What can we do to help children get the sleep they need?

1) Sleep routine/pattern

Sleep is a patterned activity. In fact, the brain has it’s own internal alarm clock referred to as a circadian rhythm that typically works on a 24hr schedule. For my fellow nerds, it is controlled by a tiny region of the brain called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus within the Hypothalamus. It is situated right above the optic chiasm- or the pathways directly linked to the eyes that crisscross in an x shape in the brain. This placement of our internal alarm clock right over the eyes is no accident as signals from the eyes- particularly those related to light- are the primary historic regulator of our sleep cycles.

Establishing a healthy sleep schedule can take time and sleep patterns can be slow to readjust. "Jet lag" is an example of the discomfort we can experience when these sleep rhythms are misaligned with life requirements or light cycles. Healthy sleep patterns tend to follow a similar development curve to other patterns in the body and can take about three weeks, or 21 days, to reset. Kids with erratic sleep patterns will get less sleep at a lower quality.

In one study on circadian rhythms, participants were housed without access to daylight or clocks to see what sleeping patterns would emerge. One finding was that the human body more easily adjusted to a 25 hour setting. This is why, for many, it is easier to stay up an hour later (have a 25 hour day) than it is to fall asleep earlier (a 23 hour day). This can lead to an unintentional jet-lag when we stay up later on weekends than we do on weekdays. When we do that, it's as if we are living in different weekend/weekday time-zones. For children who experience a great deal of anxiety going to school it can make monday mornings more difficult as a lack of sleep is linked to heightened anxiety and arousal responses.  Consistentcy ,or as close to it as possible, in sleep times is better for our overall health and our children's.

The more consistent and patterned we keep bedtime, the more we can ensure sufficient duration and quality of sleep for our children. As parents, while keeping a fixed bedtime is ideal, it is also important to consider the sequence of events leading up to this "lights out" time that helps cue the brain for sleep. So, rather than just maintaining a consistent time that children are actually in their beds, be mindful of all activities that lead to bedtime and attempt to keep them consistent and calming as children are establishing sleep routines. This is especially important for children who are having a hard time getting to sleep.

As your children enter the teenage years their sleep patterns change. Teen's sleep onset latency- or the time it takes to fall asleep- extends and their circadian rhythms lags by about two hours following puberty. This is a big part of why teens seem motivated to stay up later during adolescence and then have a harder time falling asleep when they do try. As this happens, attempting to find that balance of providing enough time for a good nights sleep and honoring their natural rhythm is important. Forcing kids to head to bed before they are sleepy can make it harder for them to fall asleep as they will pair their bed with non-sleep activities or may experience increased anxiety by attempting to sleep before their bodies are ready.

2) Temperature

Human sleep patterns were initially organized in largely outdoor or less insulated settings and as the natural light sources decreased so did the temperature. As such, we have a biological disposition to a cooling through our sleep cycles. By adjusting temperatures to allow a slight cooling at night we can improve quality and quantity of sleep. Tricks such as having a non-sweetened and non-caffeinated tea or warm shower/bath and then going straight to bed after can mimic this cooling process and strengthen sleep onset and maintenance signals. For some children, providing flexible bedding options that allow them to better adjust temperature and making sure that sleep clothes aren't overly warm or stuffy can be helpful.

In a 2008 study, Rayman and Van Sumeren found that even subtle shifts in skin temperature significantly impacted the ability to initiate sleep and get a good quality sleep. Children often experience deficits in thermosensitivity- or the ability to recognize and regulate optimal temperatures in the bodies- as they are still learning to find balance in temperature and sensation.  Some children will need more help with this including those with hypersensitivity (over-awareness) or hyposensitivity (a lack of awareness) to physical sensations. An example of hyposensitivity would be the child who dresses inappropriate for the weather and doesn't seem to notice.

3) Reduce exposure to lights

Human sleep cycles were originally set based on light signals. As early humans, we worked and travelled during the day when light sources made things more efficient and safe and then slept during the night. As such, the brain releases chemicals when light decreases that help us sleep. You have probably heard of one of these chemicals called melatonin that is commonly taken in pill form to strengthen sleep signals. Exposure to light both reduces the release of melatonin and resets circadian rhythms. Sleep environments should be as dark as possible. Helping kids learn to sleep in the dark will benefit the quality and quantity of sleep they get.

Exposure to electronics has been found to detrimentally impact sleep partially due to the light emitted by these devices. A general recommendation is that parents should limit exposure to digital media including phones, video games, youtube, computers or television within an hour of bedtime. This will be especially important for children who are struggling to fall asleep. Remember- the brain is trying to guess day and night cycles based on light signals and we are making it really hard to establish these routines with artificial lighting and sporadic light bursts from media.

4) Only use the bed for sleep

Pairing our beds to sleep allows a simpler and quicker transition to sleep. As such, only use the bed for sleep. When we use the bed for other activities- such as watching reruns of the 900th season of Greys Anatomy or playing videogames- the bed loses some of it's conditioning power towards helping us feel sleepy in it. This goes back to basic behavioural psychology. The bed becomes what is called a "conditioned stimulus" and when approached signals the brain to initiate sleep onset activity if properly paired. If sleep is difficult, where possible provide a safe calming space near the bed where children can engage in a calming activity like reading or drawing if they are not able to fall asleep. Once they feel sleepy they can then go back into the bed. Often this can be done in 15 minute blocks with 15 minutes of non-sleep followed by 10-15 minutes of calming activity before trying to sleep again.

5) Pay attention to arousal

The ability to fall asleep hinges on the capacity to calm- or dis-arouse. Sleeping is a matter of calming down, slowing our systems and heart rates, and settling into sleep. Things that arouse- such as anxiety, anger, video games, commenting “OMG SO CUTE” on an endless roll of curated selfies-all speed up our systems, promote engagement and can negatively impact sleep. This is the second reason, the first being light signals as discussed above, why cell phone use in adolescence is so problematic to healthy sleep patterns.

It is recommended that children and youth stop activities involving heightened arousal at least one hour before bedtime. Low arousal activities such as art or reading are preferred during this time. For some kids, the process of slowing the nervous system down takes a little more time- if you think this might be your child consider creating a larger gap between the arousing activity and bed or limiting certain stimulating media such as video game use throughout the week or in the evenings.

Often times, right before bed is one of the best times to communicate and talk with a child- if this leads to anger, discipline, or circling discussions about anxieties- consider re-timing these discussions for earlier in the evening and save bedtime for calming and safe communication.

Anxiety is one of the most arousing experiences for children. Safety around bedtime routines is important. Sleep is a time of vulnerability for humans and we are designed to only sleep when we feel safe. Helping children feel that parents are available to them should they be needed is important. This of course becomes an important balancing act of helping children feel safe in knowing parents are there to support them- but also learning that they are safe on their own. Children who believe they require close proximity to their parents in order to feel safe while sleeping will struggle to sleep when that is not available is it will realistically not always be.

Read to your kids! This is such a beautiful mirroring activity where kids feel attuned to, connected and safe. Here are a couple of great books to read to check out with your kids: Heart in a Bottle or Scaredy Squirrel at Night

Practice mindfulness! Before bed is an ideal time to sneak in that five minutes of deep stomach breathing practice (Here is one way to do this!). If you can’t get your kids to practice breathing- while sitting next to them practice your own deep, slow breathing and their systems may mirror yours.

6) Co-sleeping

Co-sleeping is a hotly contested topic and one we won't definitively weigh in on. The reality of every family is different and finding routines that work for everyone is a different juggle between families. Attachment, or the safety felt in relationships, is a balance of being available while also providing room and opportunity for growth and exploration. However, if you are wanting to change your current pattern of co-sleeping you can do it! It is not always easy and will take some time and consistency but can be very rewarding in helping your child feel safe on their own and in making sleep routines more convenient within the home.

Be aware that anytime we change an expected behaviour we can expect and escalation in prompting behaviours from our child. For example, if our children express fears of sleeping alone, when you remove yourself from the room the intensity with which they express those fears will likely increase. This pattern of escalation usually looks like a bell that increases for about a week or two before settling and decreasing. That week or two can be so difficult. In order for the new pattern to stick it is important to be consistent with the request we are making on the child (sleeping alone) while remaining emotionally available.

If changing these behaviours it is important to describe the change beforehand and make your response as predictable as possible. For example, "we know you can sleep on your own and we also know it's going to be a big change. We love you and if you need anything we will be there for you. If you do get up and come into our room I will tell you I love and walk you back to your room. We can talk about any fears in the morning."

If co-sleeping is something that you would like to shift- professional support may also be available. This is something I have helped many families with over the years and have seen how rewarding it can be for some. If you would like help- feel free to shoot us a message and we can do our best to find services in your area to refer you to.

Key Referrences

Bathory, E. & Tomopoulos, S. (2017). Sleep regulation, physiology and development, sleep duration and patterns and sleep hygeine in infants, toddlers and preschool-age children. Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care, 47(2), 29-42

Blunden, S. & Galland, B. (2014). The complexities of defining optimal sleep: Empirical and theoretical considerations with a special emphasis on children. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 18(5), 371-378

Crowley, S., Acebo, C. & Carskadon, M. (2007). Sleep, circadian rhythms, and delayed phase in adolescence. Sleep Medicine, 8(6), 602-612

Levi, F. & Schibler, U. (2007). Circadian rhythms: mechanisms and therapeutic implications. Annu Rev Pharmacol Toxicol, 47, 593–628.

Paruthi et al. (2016) Recommended amount of sleep for pediatric populations: a consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. J Clin Sleep Med 2016;12(6):785–786.

Rayman, R. & Van Someren (2008). Diminished Capability to Recognize the Optimal Temperature for Sleep Initiation May Contribute to Poor Sleep in Elderly People. Sleep, 9(1), 1301-1309

Zispeli, N. (2018). New perspectives on the role of melatonin in human sleep, circadian rhythms and their regulation. British Journal of Pharmacology, 175(16), 3190-3199


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