This is Part 26 in a multi-week series of blogs focused on the ABC’s for Healthy Kids. Learn more at www.snohd.org/healthykids.
Top Three Take-Aways:
- The amount of sleep people need varies by age and other factors. Make sure you allow enough time for you and your kids to get the rest you need.
- Though missing out on some sleep might not seem like a big deal, it can have long-term health consequences if children regularly lack enough rest.
- There are multiple ways to help ensure a good night’s sleep for your kids, including consistent bedtimes, comfortable sleep spaces, and relaxing routines.
How much sleep do kids need?
Good sleep habits can be just as important as things like diet and exercise when it comes to keeping kids healthy and reducing the chances of long-term problems.
The amount of time children sleep will change as they grow and develop. Be willing to adjust if your little one – or your not-so-little one, during the teen years – suddenly needs more sleep than usual. During growth spurts, developmental milestones, hormonal changes, stressful times, or while recovering from illness, kids may go through phases where their body requires some extra shut-eye.
They also may go through phases where they don’t want to sleep much at all. But it’s important that they get consistent, quality rest, so keep reinforcing the need for a full night’s sleep even if they insist they are fine with a few measly hours.
For teens and adults, about 7-9 hours of sleep per night is a pretty good target. Elementary school-age children should aim for a bit more – about 9-12 hours. So if you need to be up at 6:30 a.m. to get ready for work and school, you and the kids should start winding down for the night between 8 and 9 p.m.
For younger kids and babies, counting hours isn’t always helpful. They definitely need more than the 7-9 hours recommended for adults, but it won’t necessarily happen all at once, and it won’t necessarily all be at night. Babies likely will sleep for more than half of a 24-hour period, but in multiple stretches throughout the day and night.
The key is that babies and young children should sleep when they are tired. Their little bodies are telling them they need to rest so they can grow, develop, or handle new germs in their system.
While it’s helpful to start building bedtime routines at a young age, it may take a while before a child’s sleep schedule settles into those routines. Be patient, gentle, and consistent.
Sleep and health
During the years when kids’ bodies are growing and changing, it is especially important that they get enough rest. This is also the time to build positive habits they’ll hopefully continue throughout their lives.
It’s easy to think of missing out on sleep as an inconvenience or a discomfort rather than a health problem. Being tired isn’t that big of a deal, right?
Except it can be a very big deal if someone regularly does not get enough sleep.
Lack of sleep increases the risk of problems over time, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. It also increases risk of injuries – if you’re tired, you are less coordinated, less focused, and more likely to get hurt.
Losing sleep also interferes with kids’ ability to focus and learn. Our mind uses sleep, in part, to process and build memory. Learning doesn’t just happen during the day – it continues all through the night, and kids need that down-time to absorb everything they are seeing, doing, and studying.
If children are having a particularly difficult time sleeping and you aren’t able to improve sleep habits through strategies like setting a bedtime, limiting screen time, and making the sleep space dark and quiet, then it’s a good idea to talk to your child’s doctor. There are medical conditions that can interfere with sleep. It’s important to diagnose and address those early.
Tips and tricks for building healthy sleep habits
- Have a consistent bedtime and wake-up time. Our bodies naturally adjust to routines like sleeping or eating at the same time each day. Help your whole family get used to going to bed around the same time most nights, and then waking up around the same time most mornings. That doesn’t mean you can’t stay up late and sleep in on special occasions, but most days should have a predictable bedtime and a wake-up call to give your body its best chance at a good rest.
- Have a dark, quiet sleep space with limited distractions. It’s hard to sleep with noise, lights, or if we’re uncomfortable. Keep children’s sleeping areas mostly dark, though a nightlight is just fine. Avoid having screens – like phones, tablets, or televisions – in their rooms after bedtime. Keep the temperature comfortable, and err a little on the cooler side if you’re not sure. Finally, make sure the room is quiet or use a white noise machine to keep a steady, soothing background sound to cover outside noises like traffic.
- Have kids unplug from electronic screens. Spend at least an hour before bed without screen time. Screen time at night can interfere with a peaceful sleep. Keep cell phones and similar electronics outside of the bedroom at night. Consider setting up a charging station in a common room where family members can plug in their devices overnight, or have teens turn their phone to silent and put it in a drawer away from their bed. Buzzing or lighting up during the night is likely to interrupt their rest.
- Don’t eat too much before bed, but don’t go to bed on an empty stomach. Prepare a healthy meal a few hours before you start winding down for the night. Don’t let kids snack right before you tuck them in. Avoid food in bed as a general rule. For older kids who enjoy caffeinated beverages, they shouldn’t have any caffeine in the afternoon or evening.
- Exercise during the day, but not right before bed. Exercise is a great way to stay healthy overall, and it helps people sleep better by releasing positive endorphins and wearing them down a bit. However, intense exercise right before bed can wind you up, so be sure to have kids leave space between heavy physical activity and bedtime.
- Have a bedtime routine that helps relax children. Start bedtime routines at a young age so that children’s minds and bodies will recognize their cues to settle down for the night. They can take a warm bath, brush their teeth, and then read a book or tell a story before going to sleep. If they are stressed, think of ways to set aside those worries. For example, you can have them write down or draw a picture of what is worrying them, then fold it up and set it on a desk or table. They can unfold the paper tomorrow, but for tonight, they need to leave the worry paper folded and get some rest. For older kids, teens, and adults, journaling before bed is another good way to let go of what’s on their mind.
Take some time now to check off the “Z” in the ABCs for healthy kids. Are you and your kids getting enough rest?
Sleep is an often-overlooked key to health. Missing out on sleep can have bigger impacts than simply feeling tired. Build healthy sleep habits early to set kids up for lifelong wellness.