Back to School…How Much Sleep Does Your Child Need?

Most sleep experts agree: Children between the ages of three and five need ten to thirteen hours of sleep per night, and kids of school-going age, between five- and twelve years old need nine to twelve hours of sleep per night. Kids of that age, and even younger, are much more active both physically and mentally than teens and adolescents.

Apart from the seemingly endless reserves of energy to run around, jump on beds, chase each other, and generally move through life like a whirlwind, the world, and the discovery of it place great demands on a child’s mind.

Remember, the body needs fuel and energy to do all of that growing—that is also why good food is essential for your child—but remember that for a youngster the world is very much still a new place, with customs to acquire, dynamics to understand, social skills to learn, and not to mention handling all the information that we are surrounded with nowadays. Managing all the information around us is challenging, even for adults, and a child has not yet learned the skills of shutting off and shutting down—in fact, many adults haven’t either!

It’s difficult to get back into a healthy sleep routine after the holidays, but it is essential for your child’s health to get enough, quality sleep. Inadequate sleep has been linked to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and even depression and behavioral problems, such as difficulty concentrating (could the surge in cases of ADHD be linked to long-term sleep deprivation in children)?

How to Tell if Your Child is Getting Enough Sleep

If you’re unsure whether your child is getting the sleep he or she needs, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does my child need to be awakened three to four times before actually getting out of bed?
  • Does my child complain of being tired throughout the day?
  • Does my child take an afternoon nap?
  • Does my child need catch-up sleep on the weekends?

If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, it's likely that your child is struggling with sleep deprivation, which may affect them physically, emotionally, and behaviorally in a much more profound way than you may realize.

What Can I Do to Promote Healthy Sleeping Habits in my Child?

Sleep experts at Johns Hopkins University agree that enough sleep is absolutely essential for your child. But a child isn’t something you can just switch on and off and get them to sleep just like that at the right time.

Experts have the following tips to get those eyelids drooping when they should. These include:

  • Dim the lights—our natural sleep hormone melatonin is produced by the pineal gland when it starts getting dark, so gradually dimming the lighting in your home as the evening progresses, is a great way to signal the pineal gland to start doing its thing—and not just for the kids either!
  • Stop the use of electronics/screens at least an hour before bed, or even earlier. Experts agree that limiting screen time has become one of the most urgent issues needing attention from parents, and recently, the UK has classified prolonged hours playing video games as a mental illness or addiction.
  • Limit caffeine—or just remove it completely. Also, take note of energy drinks during the day and consider talking to your pediatrician if your child is on any medications that may be interfering with his or her sleep.
  • Have them take a warm bath about an hour before bedtime. It raises the body’s temperature, and as it gradually cools down, the urge to sleep also increases.
  • Do a quiet family activity such as reading a short book—any routine activity that is peaceful and calming can become welded to “bedtime” in your child’s mind. Reading out loud to children has been shown to improve vocabulary and be beneficial to development, and bedtime is a perfect time to read to kids. Find a book your whole family will enjoy. A book with big colorful pictures works particularly well.
  • If your child wakes up during the night, walk them back to their room with as little commotion as possible.
  • Set a wake-up time for when the child is allowed to leave his or her room. He or she can continue to play quietly in their room if they wake before then but establishing a “bedroom time” routine is a great way to separate sleeping and calmness from waking and activity.

What if My Child Still Cannot Sleep?

  1. Don’t skip the pillow talk: Sit with your child and allow them to talk about whatever’s on their mind—but set limits—don’t give in to whining about “don’t leave” or “sleep with me all night.” Tell your child in advance that you want to spend some special time with them but that you can’t stay too long. Then listen. Try not to talk too much.
  2. Allow your child to self-regulate his or her bedtime:  Your job as a parent is to put your children to bed– not to make them go to sleep. Keep wake-up time consistent with an alarm clock. If a child can’t sleep, allow him or her to read in bed. Keep the room lights dim or off. If your child needs a reading light, buy a clip-on LED reading light.
  3. Consider a melatonin supplement: As mentioned, melatonin is the body’s natural sleep hormone secreted by the pineal gland when it gets dark. Short-term melatonin supplements can be an effective way to get a child’s sleep cycle back on track. Melatonin can help kids fall asleep. But it doesn’t do much for kids who wake up in the middle of the night. Consult your pediatrician though before using this over-the-counter supplement.
  4. Teach your child to give their worries away: In Guatemala, there is a tradition of teaching children to give their worries to little colorful dolls called worry dolls or trouble dolls. Children can tell the dolls their worries and then put the dolls under their pillow. According to legend, the dolls then worry for the child while the child sleeps peacefully. It doesn’t need to be a doll specifically: Any inanimate object such as a stuffed animal or a doll you already own can work. This teaching can have positive results even into adulthood by teaching the mind to move or sublimate worries and troubles to deal with tomorrow.
  5. Routine, routine, routine: Remember that toddler bedtime routine of bath, brushing teeth, story, etc? Your school-age child still needs a bedtime routine. Find what works for your family and stick to it.
  6. Don’t skip the story:  A bedtime story can refocus your child’s mind in a positive, imaginary world, and help them forget their worries.
  7. Get rid of the stimulants: Avoid caffeine and energy drinks, and beware of hidden stimulants in chocolate and second-hand smoke. Anxiety and sleeplessness are side effects of many medications, including over-the-counter cold medications and ADHD medications. If you think your child’s medications are part of the problem, be sure to call the prescribing physician before you stop them.
  8. Regulate the fluids: Getting up in the night to use the bathroom is a common sleep disturbance. It seems simple, but your child might just need a reminder not to drink anything after dinner (except while brushing teeth), and to use the toilet before bed.
  9. Call your pediatrician: Your primary care pediatrician can help you rule out medical causes of sleeplessness and anxiety, including sleep apnoea, allergies, snoring, medication side effects, and much more. Your pediatrician can also provide anxiety medications and may be able to treat uncomplicated anxiety without a referral to psychiatry.