With the impending visit of Santa on many minds this evening, sleep may not be coming easy to everyone (parents included). While lack of sleep may seem like something that “happens every now and then”, it’s imperative that we ensure that our children are getting the most out of this vital life necessity. All living things require sleep to rest, repair, rejuvenate, and grow. Even if we as adults are not catching enough zzzzs…. that is not an excuse or reason to have bad habits trickle down to our youngsters. Perhaps after reading this article, some of you who need more shut-eye will understand why your body can’t perform at its best without adequate rest. While it may seem impossible at times when our to-do lists are a mile long and the only time we can get anything done is at night, we have to realize that we need to be setting the example for our children (and making sure we are taking care of ourselves so we can take care of our children once the sun comes up). Whether your children are sleeping pros or they need to attend sleep boot camp, hopefully this article will offer some helpful information so everyone can get the most out of bedtime.
Foremost, we should understand how much sleep we and our children need to make sure our bodies are getting enough rest.
- Adults ideally should get between 8-10 hours of sleep per night, although this may sound like a joke to some of you.
- Babies up to age 1 should be getting between 18-14 hours of sleep total per day between naps and nighttime sleep.
- Toddlers need about 12-14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. When they reach about 18 months of age their naptimes will decrease to once a day lasting about one to three hours.
- Preschoolers typically sleep 11-13 hours each night and most do not nap after five years of age.
- Children aged five to 12 need 10-11 hours of sleep.
Interestingly enough, were you aware that there are 5 stages to sleep? Understanding these stages will allow us to understand what’s going on in our little ones’ brains while their eyes are shut.
The Stages of Sleep
Stage 1 – In this stage, your brain gives the signal to your muscles to relax. It also tells your heart to beat a little slower, and your body temperature drops a bit.
Stage 2 – After a little while, you enter stage 2, which is a light sleep. You can still be woken up easily during this stage. Noises and stimuli near children while they are trying to sleep will most likely wake them up during this stage (and can cause issues getting back to sleep!)
Stage 3 – You’re in a deeper sleep during this stage, also called slow-wave sleep. Your brain sends a message to your blood pressure to get lower. Your body isn’t sensitive to the temperature of the air around you, which means that you won’t notice if it’s a little hot or cold in your room. It’s much harder to be awakened when you’re in this stage, but some people may sleepwalk or talk in their sleep at this point.
Stage 4 – This is the deepest sleep yet and is also considered slow-wave sleep. It’s very hard to wake up from this stage of sleep, and if you do wake up, you’re sure to be out of it and confused for at least a few minutes. Like they do in stage 3, some people may sleepwalk or talk in their sleep when going from stage 4 to a lighter stage of sleep.
Stage 5 (R.E.M.) – R.E.M. stands for “rapid eye movement.” Even though the muscles in the rest of your body are totally relaxed, your eyes move back and forth very quickly beneath your eyelids. The R.E.M. stage is when your heart beats faster and your breathing is less regular. This is also the stage when people dream!
While you’re asleep, you repeat stages 2, 3, 4, and R.E.M. about every 90 minutes until you wake up in the morning. For most kids, that’s about four or five times a night.
Benefits of Sleep: Sleep impacts a wide-array of physiological and mental health functions. Dr. Mercola states that, “Researchers have learned that circadian rhythms—the 24-hour cycles known as your internal body clock—are involved in everything from sleep to weight gain, mood disorders, and a variety of diseases. Your body actually has many internal clocks—in your brain, lungs, liver, heart and even your skeletal muscles—and they all work to keep your body running smoothly by controlling temperature and the release of hormones.” Additionally, the American Psychological Association notes: “Psychologists and other scientists who study sleep disorders have shown that sleep problems can directly affect the following systems:
- Brain and nervous system
- Cardiovascular system
- Metabolic functions
- Immune system
Despite what some people may think about sleep being a “peaceful” state, our bodies are hard at work repairing, cell-building, and growing. Did you know that between the hours of 1am-4am, our livers are most active detoxifying our bodies and ridding itself of damaged cells? If we are not asleep during those hours specifically, our bodies will experience a faster response to sleep deprivation. Without sleep, our bodies “break down” and we are susceptible to:
- getting sick
- poor brain function
- horrible mood swings
- hormonal imbalance (especially the hormones that affect hunger regulation)
- lack of energy and/or interest during daily activities
- memory loss
- hyperactive behavior in children (when children are overtired, their brains are not able to function properly and hormone release becomes “confused,” and releasing too much adrenaline to try and keep the body’s energy stores going because proper rest was not achieved from sleep.
Factors that Can Affect Sleep: We all know that at times, getting a child to sleep seems like it takes an act of God. Here are some common things you should be aware of that can affect sleep:
- stress (believe it or not, stressors in school and with friends or family are starting at an earlier age!)
- foods high in sugar and/or refined carbohydrates
- caffeine (your children shouldn’t even touch this anyway)
- traveling (especially to different time zones)
- change in routine (hence why it’s so important that you keep bedtime routines consistent)
- being overtired (why staying up past bedtime is not a great idea)
- environmental factors such as a room that’s too hot or cold, too noisy or too brightly lit
- certain medications such as decongestants, steroids and some medicines for asthma or allergies can cause wakefulness
- naps should not occur too close to bedtime as they may delay sleep at night
- toddlers’ drive for independence and an increase in their motor, cognitive and social abilities can interfere with sleep
- a toddlers’ ability to get out of bed and their desire/need for autonomy can lead to bedtime issues
- separation anxiety may lead to prolonged periods of crying and not wanting to fall asleep
- the development of the child’s imagination can lead to sleep problems (can cause a heightened level of excitement) or can contribute to nightmares and terrors
- sleepwalking and sleep terrors peak during preschool years
- Nightmares are dreams with vivid and disturbing content. They are common in children during REM sleep. They usually involve an immediate awakening and good recall of the dream content.
- Sleep terrors are often described as extreme nightmares. Like nightmares, they most often occur during childhood, however they typically take place during non-REM (NREM) sleep. Characteristics of a sleep terror include arousal, agitation, large pupils, sweating, and increased blood pressure. The child appears terrified, screams and is usually inconsolable for several minutes, after which he or she relaxes and returns to sleep. Sleep terrors usually take place early in the night and may be combined with sleepwalking. The child typically does not remember or has only a vague memory of the terrifying events.
- for school-aged children, there is an increasing demand on their time from school (e.g., homework), sports and other extracurricular and social activities, which can lead to an interference with bedtimes
- school aged children also become more interested in TV, computers, the media and Internet – all of which can lead to difficulty falling asleep, nightmares and disruptions to their sleep. In particular, watching TV close to bedtime has been associated with bedtime resistance, difficulty falling asleep, anxiety around sleep and sleeping fewer hours.
Tips for Optimizing Your Child’s Sleep (and yours, for that matter!):
- Try to put your child down to bed at the same time every night; this helps their body get into a routine
- Follow a bedtime routine that is calming, such as taking a warm bath or reading.
- Limit foods and drinks that contain caffeine. These include some sodas and other drinks, like ice tea.
- Don’t have a TV in your child’s room. Research shows that kids who have one in their room sleep less. If you have a TV, turn it off when it’s time to sleep.
- It’s best to avoid watching TV or using your computer at night as a source of entertainment for your child—or at least about an hour or so before going to bed—as these technologies can have a significantly detrimental impact on sleep. TV and computer screens emit blue light; nearly identical to the light you’re exposed to outdoors during the day. This interferes with your circadian rhythms, tricking the brain into thinking it’s still daytime, thereby shutting down melatonin secretion.
- Have your child sleep in complete darkness, or as close to it as possible. Even the slightest bit of light in the room can disrupt the body’s internal clock and the pineal gland’s production of melatonin and serotonin. Even the tiniest glow from a nightlight could interfere with sleep.
- Keep the temperature in your child’s bedroom no higher than 70 degrees F. Many people keep their homes and particularly their bedrooms too warm. Studies show that the optimal room temperature for sleep is between 60 to 68 degrees. Keeping bedrooms cooler or hotter can lead to restless sleep. This is because when you sleep, your body’s internal temperature drops to its lowest level, generally about four hours after you fall asleep. Scientists believe a cooler bedroom may therefore be most conducive to sleep, since it mimics your body’s natural temperature drop.
- Don’t allow your children to watch overly-“exciting” or scary TV shows or movies close to bedtime because these can sometimes make it hard to fall asleep or leave vivid images in their minds (which can then lead to nightmares).
- Exercise is important during the day to become physically “tired.” However, don’t promote exercise just before going to bed. Do exercise earlier in the day — it helps a person sleep better.
- Have your child use his/her bed just for sleeping — not doing homework, reading, playing games, or talking on the phone. That way, you’ll train their body to associate their bed with sleep.
- Set limits that are consistent, communicated and enforced.
- Encourage use of a security object such as a blanket or stuffed animal.
Hopefully everyone in your home will have visions of sugar plums dancing through your heads after reading this article and heeding this advice. With adequate sleep, your children will be less naughty and more nice! Happy Holidays, everyone!