Why your child needs sufficient sleep

Sleep deprivation in adults and it’s effects is a widely studied topic. Adults can usually recognise the effects of sleep deprivation in themselves and typically know when it’s time to take a step back and lie in. The effects of sleep deprivation on children on the other hand, is not very widely studied. There is a general feeling that children will show you when they are tired and will always get the sleep they need.

Generally most people agree on bedtimes for children between 8 and 9 pm, but wake up times are typically driven by our work or school schedules. Many of us would have had the experience of talking with a friend at 10:30 pm and heard children screaming in the background or perhaps it is your own children who jump all around until they fall into bed at 11 pm? So how much sleep does a child really need and will they show you how much sleep they need?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following average amount of sleep for children.

Infants under 1 year: 12-16 hours
Children 1-2 years old: 11-14 hours
Children 3-5 years old: 10-13 hours
Children 6-12 years old: 9-12 hours
Teenagers 13-18 years old: 8-10 hours

I can hear some people thinking, “my child is different, he/she does not need so much sleep”. I urge you to read further with an open mind.
While I am not a sleep professional, I started to study this topic in 2009. My daughter was around 6 months old and she had grown out of the infant phase and that child would just not go to sleep. As she grew older, it only got worse. In fact, she usually seemed even more awake at 8pm than at 8am. She would seem so super active and super awake and I tended to fall asleep while reading to her. She would wake me up, I would sing, massage etc all to no avail and then she would all of a sudden fall deeply asleep, leaving me exhausted and frustrated. That was when I started to read books about sleep and learn about how important it is and what impact it has on a child’s development and temperament.

There is a lot of research that shows that children who regularly get sufficient sleep have improved attention, behavior, learning, memory, and overall mental and physical health. Sleep contributes to proper physical and mental development and wellbeing of your kids. Sleep deprivation on the other hand has a number of negative effects.

Difficulty managing emotions is one of the signs of sleep deprivation. Sometime it’s obvious that your child is misbehaving because they are exhausted, sometimes it’s not so obvious. That clingy, whiny, anxious child might actually be tired. They can’t tell you what they need and sometimes they don’t even realise it themselves, so that they instead slip into the tone and behaviour of much younger children. All children have difficulty managing their emotions when they are tired, but more temperamental kids even more. If your child is hitting, biting or throwing unnecessary temper tantrums, beyond what is normal for their developmental phase, sleep deprivation might just be the culprit. If your child suffers from constant headaches or is susceptible to infections, it’s worth it tracking how much sleep they are actually getting. Sleep deprivation might be causing their immune system to be weakened. Older kids might have difficulty focusing in school, difficulty getting along with others and might be excessively forgetful when they are dealing with sleep deprivation. Not getting enough sleep
can also lead to high blood pressure, obesity and even depression.

It’s not always easy to recognize that your child is sleep deprived because the quest to stay alert is so strong for children that instead of getting drowsy, many of them get “wired”. Their behaviour will tend to appear wild rather than tired as long as the stimulation levels are high enough to keep them awake. This is sometimes the reason why tired children argue, fight their siblings, chase pets etc in an attempt to create enough commotion to stay awake. You can also recognise the signs when they insist on having the tv and radio turned on much higher and are shouting above the din! Sleep deprivation adds up and creeps up on you. That means that a child who missed sleep on Friday night might be misbehaving on Monday, but it won’t be obvious except if you are aware that sleep deprivation can
be cumulative, especially for children.

Studies show that up to 20% of the children who have been diagnosed with ADHD actually have a sleep disorder. According to a sleep researcher, an estimated 69% of American children are not getting enough sleep. Looking at the schedules in many Nigerian cities, especially Lagos, I am tempted to think the stats are even worse, although I don’t have any research to back this up.

For me, the first positive effect of understanding the effect of sleep deprivation was that it helped me be more patient. When you know your child is misbehaving, not because they want to disgrace you or because you are a bad parent, but because they are tired, you can deal with their behaviour in a more constructive manner. Rather than shouting or beating them, you should be doing the opposite. When you are calm and firm and provide sensitive responses to your child’s sleep related misbehaviour, you can help them calm down and actually relax and sleep.

Apart from a busy life schedule, tension can also prevent children from being able to go to sleep and sleep well. Tension can be triggered distress or excitement. Common triggers for distress include parental stress, separations, upsetting events, major life changes (e.g. starting school) and ironically, lack of sleep.
Common triggers for excitement include overstimulation ( too much input - iPad, tv etc), over scheduling ( too many activities in a day), anticipation, competition/pressure to perform and growth spurts.

Since some of these triggers cannot be avoided, if you become familiar with the things that distress or excite your child, you can take steps to help your child relax. As a result, the intensity of the emotions will not overwhelm him and he’ll be ready at bedtime for sleep.

Tips for improving your child’s sleep behaviour

1. Start the day slowly with a calm breakfast. Avoid blaring TV or radio at breakfast so your family can start the day peacefully.
2. Take time out to just listen to your child. Listening instead of responding diffuses tension. Children usually have a lot to talk about after school, my own son likes to tell me about his day at bedtime
3. Slow down the pace of your day - if the kids are over scheduled, reduce one activity. Try to avoid major exciting events in the evenings or close to bedtime. If you have to take your child to a party at night, keep in mind that they will be sleep deprived the next day except if they get a chance to sleep longer and have a calmer day, so keep in mind you will need to bemore patient with them the next day.
4. Create special downtime’s during the day - time without TV or iPads when the kids craft or  read novels or play with Lego. In our household, TV is completely banned during the week.

5. If possible, make the room a nest, serene and solely for sleeping and not jumping up and down on the bed.
6. Hold, touch and hug your child often. Touch has a healing and calming effect, even on adults but it’s vital for children.

I encourage you to try and identify the patterns in your child. Discovering their unique pattern is like solving a challenging puzzle and you’ll be delighted by the success have.

It’s also good to keep in mind that each child is different. Unlike my daughter, my son found it easier to go to sleep and was more in tune with his sleep needs from the beginning. I remember he would ask to be put to bed like clockwork at 7:30pm each day and would be asleep within 5 minutes of his head hitting the bed. While he now goes to bed at between 8pm & 8:30pm, he still rarely has difficulty falling asleep.  The fact that by the time he was born, I knew a lot more about the effects of sleep and how to help children get the sleep they need has obviously also helped. My son needs more sleep than his sister and cannot handle a sleep deficit as well as his sister can. So my approach to the sleep needs of both kids is individual. I teach them to be self aware of their needs with respect to sleep and how sleep deficiency affects them and I encourage you to talk about it with your kids.

I wish you good luck on your own journey of better sleep for your kids. Please let me know if this information was helpful.

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