The Importance of a Good Night’s Sleep

Your pediatrician hardly needs to tell you that sleep is valuable for your entire family and especially children of any age. The year 2020 has been many things, but not particularly restful. Stress affects people in different ways, and you may have noticed your child’s sleep has suffered.

            This spring, changes to routine including school or daycare closures, social isolation, and worry for friends and family may have triggered regressive behaviors in kids, some instant and others less obvious. Tantrums or defiant attitudes, bathroom accidents, and sleep disturbances are not uncommon—many kids who previously didn’t struggle with these have “backslid.”

            As parents and caregivers, we must consider both the quantity and quality of our kids’ sleep: how many hours they get and how well-rested they are. Quantity is easier to measure. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following amounts of sleep per 24-hour period:

  • Infants 4-12 months old: 12-16 hours (including naps)
  • Toddlers 1-2 years old: 11-14 hours (including naps)
  • Preschoolers 3-5 years old: 10-13 hours (including naps)
  • Children 6-12 years old: 9-12 hours
  • Teens 13-18 years old: 8-10 hours

Of course, some kids may need more or less sleep than others. Even siblings can have vastly different patterns and needs. The numbers above may surprise you, especially since many parents don’t get the hours they need either. If you notice daytime tiredness, irritability, and/or trouble concentrating, monitoring amounts of sleep is a good place to start.

But what to do if quantity doesn’t seem to be the problem? Unpredictable wake-ups, bedwetting, insomnia, nighttime fears, or other causes of anxiety can all make for a long night. Listed below are suggestions for the whole family:

ENFORCE A ROUTINE. If you’ve identified a recurring nighttime problem, create a routine to address it and stick to that routine. It takes several weeks to establish a new habit, but only a couple days to disrupt it.

Resist the temptation to allow a child to sneak into your bed. This makes it more difficult for them to sleep alone or away from home. Limit fluid intake up to two hours before bed, permitting only small sips of water in a tiny cup. If stress is causing insomnia or oversleeping in the morning, work to identify the cause. Communicate with your child’s teacher(s) if school is creating too much anxiety. Avoid talking about distressing subjects in front of kids unless you’re prepared to explain them in an age-appropriate way.

Keeping a routine falls to [often exhausted] parents, but healthy sleep is something your kid(s) will benefit from for life. If your small child is taking long naps in the afternoon, he or she is probably not getting enough sleep at night. In the moment, you may want as much of that quiet time as you can get, but be aware you might pay for it at night.

TALK WITH YOUR PEDIATRICIAN. Unlike illness, sleep is universal. “We discuss sleep with every patient at every well visit,” says Dr. Eleanor Braun at South Louisville Pediatrics. “Our knowledge comes from extensive training, years of conversations with patients and parents, and personal experience. We strive to have a full picture of your child’s health every year, and that helps us identify sleep disruptors when they come up.” A patient with asthma, for example, may wake frequently if they’re not breathing comfortably during an exacerbation. Your doctor can also provide safety advice for kids who get up during the night, whether they’re conscious or sleepwalking.

If you’re considering giving your child melatonin, an over-the-counter sleep hormone supplement, talk with your pediatrician first. Because it’s available without a prescription, melatonin is not regulated by the FDA and its effectiveness is not guaranteed. Other solutions should be implemented first, like reducing blue light exposure. The wavelength in blue light diminishes the body’s natural melatonin production, according to the AAP.  

CONSIDER THE LIGHTING. Our sleep cycles have a strong response to light. Blue light emitted from televisions, tablets, and phones, essentially tricks the body into thinking it’s daytime. This is why even adult physicians advise their patients not to stare at their phones before bed. Ideally, “screen time” should cease at least 1 hour before intended bedtimes to allow the body and mind to relax. Though it’s tempting to let kids watch tv for relaxation, reading a book, listening to soothing music, journaling, or practicing meditation are preferable. Don’t beat yourself up if your bedtime routines aren’t the stuff of parenting magazines: audiobooks and meditation apps exist for a reason.

For younger children with earlier bedtimes, consider turning on as few lights as possible in the home to allow the space to darken naturally as the sun goes down, working in tandem with their natural sleep cycles. Exposure to bright light in the morning will help maintain that rhythm.

CREATE A SAFE SPACE. No matter how hard we try to help our kids relax before bed, sometimes their active minds wander into anxiety, or they wake from a bad dream. When this happens, listen to their worries in a non-dismissive way. It’s easy to feel frustrated when a toddler fears something irrational or an older child brings up a concern seemingly out of nowhere, but allowing them to speak their worries out loud will create a conversation rather than letting their imagination spiral.

If you have a young child with separation anxiety, consider putting a photo near their bed of a happy family memory to help them feel close. Let them know you’ll check on them before you go to bed, and follow through on that promise.

Any number of factors can affect sleep, but modern parents have more resources available to them than ever. As long as you’re prioritizing a safe, peaceful routine, you don’t need to feel guilty for the occasional sidestep.

To read more about sleep-related topics, visit