How to help children get better sleep

Sleep is not only an essential part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but it also is crucial to the growth and development of children. According to a pediatric sleep expert, it is common for kids to have trouble falling and staying asleep, especially when they graduate from their crib to a bed or experience any major change in their schedule or environment.

A parent putting children to sleep.“We see it often that kids have a harder time going to sleep and staying asleep through different stages of life,” said Dr. Sonal Malhotra, assistant professor of pediatrics – pulmonary and sleep medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital.

Malhotra explains that poor sleep quality in children can lead to difficulties concentrating during the daytime and even lead to a misdiagnosis of ADHD. The amount of sleep kids should receive each night varies by age:

  • Ages 1-2: 11-14 hours
  • Ages 3-5: 10-13 hours
  • Ages 6-13: 9-11 hours
  • Ages 14-17: 8-10 hours

“I think quality, quantity and consistency with sleep is really important,” Malhotra said. “If you don’t achieve any one of those three things, there can be a lot of neurocognitive outcomes that are negative, and we see that during the daytime whenever kids are having a hard time in school or parents are saying there are changes in their behavior.”

Whether it’s heading back to school after summer break or adjusting to a new schedule, Malhotra offers a few recommendations on how to help kids who might be struggling with falling or remaining asleep throughout the night.

Stick to a routine schedule

While most adults and kids sleep in on the weekends, this is not always the best way to receive quality sleep. Malhotra advises providing kids with a set bedtime and wakeup time during the entire week.

“If there is an inconsistent sleep schedule throughout the week and are changing hours constantly, you can imagine how much a toll that can take on the body,” Malhotra said. “I think one of the biggest tips I can give parents is to have a consistency with schedule.”

Keep a good sleep environment

Making your child’s bedroom an easy place to fall asleep is just as important as maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, Malhotra explains. She recommends turning off electronics at least an hour before bedtime and keeping the room cool and dark. Instead, try incorporating relaxing activities, like reading or taking a bath, at bedtime.

“Where the kids sleep should only be where they go to sleep,” she said. “Playing video games, watching TV or staring at a phone just tells the brain to stay awake while in bed rather than training it to think that this environment is for sleep.”

Naps

Children normally start removing daily naps from their schedule by around four or five years of age. While naps can sometimes be used to catch up on sleep as they get older, Malhotra said receiving a sufficient amount of sleep throughout the night reaps the most benefits.

“If it’s in the schedule on a daily basis as they get older, that just means that there needs to be more sleep during nighttime,” she said. “It can be difficult to catch up on sleep with just naps. Consolidating sleep during the night is the most beneficial.”

Melatonin

Melatonin is a common supplement given to adults and children to help the body fall asleep. However, Malhotra recommends starting with behavioral methods first before turning to any sleep aids.

“We really don’t know the long-term effects of melatonin, and less is always more when it comes to medications,” she said. “Limiting the amount of medication is always the best way to help the acute problem as well as handling long-term sleep problems.”

When to see a doctor

If your child is still having trouble falling asleep, Malhotra advises visiting a physician who can help provide support and check if there are any underlying issues.

“The most important things are to set these expectations early on,” she said. “We know that if you are having trouble with insomnia or sleep problems early on it is likely to carry into adulthood.”

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