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Sweet Z-z-z-z-z's: The World of Childhood Sleep

Why Sleep is Important

sleeping child Healthy child development requires sufficient slumber. So, when a young child fails to fall asleep at an appropriate hour, both the parents and child suffer.

While observational studies do not allow researchers to say for sure whether poor sleep quality is a cause or a result of depression and low self esteem, other sleep researchers have linked a lack of sleep in young children to a whole host of daytime woes. These include hyperactivity, behavior problems, learning difficulties, and that dreaded condition feared by all parents: the cranky child. Sleep disturbance and behavior disorders are likely associated in children, even if it is rarely possible to say with certainty which causes which.

Make Use of Transitional Time

child in bath In the modern world, both parents work, so the whole household rises early. This makes a firm bedtime more important than ever. Unfortunately, many parents find that getting their young child to bed is the most difficult part of the day. To overcome this, create a routine associated with bedtime. Be as consistent as possible and start the routine at the same time every night.

One useful technique recommended by experts is the effective use of transitional time, which falls between normal evening activities and bedtime. Quiet, low-key activities such as bedtime stories, prayers, singing, warm baths, cuddling, and quiet talk make for good transitional time. Many children have a favorite teddy bear or toy they associate with bedtime each night. Once you establish this routine, your child will make the connection between quiet time and bedtime. During the transition, avoid activities that stimulate your child. These include wrestling, roughhousing, or exciting television shows.

Make sure your child gets enough physical activity during the day. Aim for 60 minutes a day. Activity will reduce stress, and induce fatigue and relaxation. Your child may even look forward to going to sleep at night.

Do Not Be a Sleep Assistant

The amount of sleep a child needs can vary depending on the child. So, it is up to parents to judge the exact amount of rest their children need. On average, kids aged 6-13 years old need about 9-11 hours of sleep a night. The earlier you establish a routine, the better. In fact, you can start bedtime routines during infancy.

Try to avoid staying with your child until they fall asleep. It can lead to a habit that is hard to break because your child will expect it to continue. Further, it may inhibit their ability to fall asleep when they are alone. Instead, think of yourself as a helper to set the mood for a good night's sleep. The transition will be difficult, but there are ways to ease your child into a new routine. Remember to give it time and remain patient.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends waiting several minutes when your child calls out from their bed. The idea is to give your child a chance to fall asleep on their own in between call outs. If the next call comes, stop farther from the child's door every time you approach the room. If you can, avoid going into the room. If you have to go in, do not turn on any lights, or engage in conversations or play. Every time you are called, remind your child that it is time to go to sleep.

Keep a Sleep Diary

Sleeping problems are common. If you think your child may have a sleep problem, try keeping a sleep diary. Record bedtimes, awake times, reasons for getting up at night, how long your child remains awake, and what it took to get your child back to sleep. You may see a pattern develop that can help you talk out your child's problems and give reassurance. It may also be useful to record changes or stressful events in their daily life.

The journal may also help reveal sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, night terrors, nightmares, or sleepwalking. Writing down specific incidences is helpful for you and your child's doctor. Although night terrors tend to resolve on their own, sleep apnea requires treatment.

There are several treatment options that will help your child to have a better sleep experience. This may reduce other problems your child may have during the day.

In most cases, having an established routine each night is the key to helping your child get to sleep at night on their own. If problems persist, consider talking to your child's doctor for advice.


The National Sleep Foundation

Sleep Education—American Academy of Sleep Medicine


About Kids Health—The Hospital for Sick Children

Health Canada


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Last reviewed January 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP