1 Sheep, 2 Sheep, 3 Sheep… SLEEP!
Sleep is SO important for all ages! On top of what I learned in medical school and pediatrics residency, I read every book I could find (more on that at the bottom) when my daughter was an infant. Why? Adequate sleep is essential for overall healthy growth and development, healthy immune systems, good behavior, memory, school performance, and mental health (to name a few!). One of the biggest challenges we parents face is battling poor sleep when our children are young, and subsequently trying to teach good sleep habits to set them up for a well-rested future. As a mom to a child that has struggled with sleep since birth, I know how tough this can be!
Let’s start with the building blocks: How much sleep do children need?
In truth, this number varies not only based on age but also on the individual child. Because sleep is so important, there is a lot of research done to help us figure these questions out! According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the following sleep amounts are recommended in a 24 hour period (including naps):
- Infants age 4-12 months need 12-16 hours per day
- Toddlers, age 1-2 years, need 11-14 hours per day
- Preschoolers, age 3-5 years, need 10-13 hours per day
- Gradeschoolers, age 6-12 years, need 9-12 hours per day
- Teenagers, age 13-18 years, need 8-10 hours per day
I know - these numbers are surprising! Adults get used to functioning on so little sleep that we forget how much better we feel when we are well-rested, but long-term effects of poor sleep can affect every aspect of life, at any age! Okay, okay- you get it. Let’s move onto the most important part of this discussion.
How do we help our kids develop healthy sleep habits?
How do we stay consistent, so they hopefully carry these habits into adolescence and then adulthood? It’s not always an easy task, but it’s worth the effort. And when you’re also sleeping uninterrupted, you can pat yourself on the back for having accomplished it.At any age, the first step to laying the foundation for good sleep habits is a routine. You might be balking at this idea, but it has been proven time and time again that children thrive on routines, especially at bedtime. This does not mean being rigid- you can enjoy your day and vary your activities. But, in general:
- Having regular wake times, nap times (if age appropriate), and bedtime help provide your child with security and teach their bodies and brains to inherently know when it’s time for sleep.
- Regular mealtimes also help cement the routine.
- For bedtime, you should create your own special routine to get your kids to wind down and mentally prepare for rest. This can include bath time, teeth brushing, reading a book, telling a story, or singing a special song- whatever works for you.
- I personally love reading books as part of a bedtime routine – not only does it help kids unwind but also improves literacy, vocabulary, imagination, etc. If the routine is portable, that’s even better! You can take it with you no matter where you travel.
Screen time and bedtime
I should stop here to mention one thing that should not be a part of the bedtime routine. You may have guessed it- screen time! Ideally, all screens (TV, computers, tablets, phones, etc) should remain outside of the bedroom at night. It’s really important to turn off all screens at least 1-2 hours before bedtime because the bright lights make it harder for the brain to wind down. Overall, screen time boundaries are also important – we recommend no more than 2 hours of non-academic screen time daily, and none in infants and young toddlers.
What else can we do to boost sleep habits?
- During the day, get some activity and fresh air in.
- Avoiding caffeine, chocolate, and sugar in the evening may help some children.
- Environmental changes such as dark rooms, cool temperatures, a security object if older than 12 months (or “snuggle buddy” as my daughter calls it) can also help.
- White noise machines also improve sleep in most children.
- In infants and toddlers, it’s very important not to put them to bed with a bottle because this causes a feed-sleep association that is difficult to break. Similarly, rocking or holding your child to sleep can create poor sleep habits because they do not learn to self-soothe. It’s best if they can fall asleep on their own in their crib.
Though I could go on and on about sleep, I’ll end this blog with a reminder that while good sleep habits fix the majority of sleep issues in kids, it is important that we never ignore signs of a medical problem causing sleep disturbances. If your child is not sleeping well, I would encourage you to discuss it with one of our pediatricians or with your child’s primary care doctor so we can monitor for red flags and help you come up with a plan specific to your family to help improve sleep quality!
I encourage you to read the synopsis to pick one that fits your parenting style:
- The Sleep Lady’s Good Night, Sleep Tight by Kim West
- Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems by Richard Ferber
- Precious Little Sleep by Alexis Dibief
- Happy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth, MD
- It’s Never Too Late to Sleep Train by Craig Canapari, MD