Kids & Sleep

Sleep plays an important role in brain development in children and young adults and it is crucial that they get enough sleep for their brains and bodies to grow and develop. Research has shown that sleep is crucial for alertness and many other key functions in school-going children.

Our children now have very hectic schedules. Not only do they have additional classes to help them cope with and supplement academic learning, there are sports lessons, music lessons and the homework they may have to catch up with in the evenings. This hectic schedule means that at the end of the day, their tired bodies and brains need to recharge, and the best way to do this is by getting sufficient sleep. The challenge here is to help your child to ‘switch off’ and be mentally ready for sleep at bedtime. Do read on for some tips on how you can achieve this.

A study on children aged 7-11 years old showed that extending their sleep time by around half an hour led to marked advancement in handling their emotions the next day. On the other hand, by reducing their total sleep time, the opposite effect was observed.

Did you know?

Too much of a good thing can be bad – studies have shown that oversleeping regularly can increase the risk of diabetes, obesity, headaches, back pain, depression, and heart disease.

Why does your child need his sleep?

You may have noticed that whenever your child doesn’t get enough sleep, he not only feels tired but may also be unable to focus on the tasks he has to carry out. In addition, he will likely be very irritable, prone to emotional outbursts, have difficulty following directions, or he may argue with you over something inconsequential.

Studies have also shown that sleep deprivation leads to deficits in cognitive performance, which includes poorer memory, reflexes, and attention. However, as these cognitive deficits tend to accumulate over time, kids who run short of sleep now may remain unaware of it. You should do your part to ensure that your child gets sufficient sleep as this will ensure that he performs better academically, cognitively, and emotionally.

Bear in mind that taking naps or sleeping in during weekends are not viable solutions as they will not ensure that your child functions at his optimum level. Nothing can substitute regular and sufficient sleep.

What happens during sleep?

A typical sleep cycle consists of two alternating states of sleep, namely non-rapid eye-movement (NREM) sleep and rapid eye-movement (REM). Over the course of a night’s sleep, your child will go through several sleep cycles. As he progresses through these cycles, his body undergoes certain physiological changes. NREM sleep is characterised by four distinct stages. In Stage 1, he will fluctuate between wakefulness and being asleep, or he may be dozing lightly. Stage 2 begins when he becomes disengaged from his surroundings, his breathing and heart rates become more regulated and his body temperature drops. Stages 3 and 4 are the deepest sleep stages and they allow his body to recuperate from the day’s activities. During these stages, his blood pressure drops, his breathing slows, his muscles become relaxed, his body supplies more blood to his muscles (thus allowing tissue growth and repair), and his energy is replenished.

REM sleep typically happens around 90 minutes after your child falls asleep. It then repeats every 90 minutes or so and occurs for longer stretches later in the night. During REM sleep, his brain is active and dreams may occur. It is often accompanied by the trademark rapid movement of his eyeballs darting back and forth. His body remains immobile and relaxed with his muscles lax. REM sleep helps his brain and body to replenish its energy in preparation for the day ahead.

Sleep helps regulate the levels of certain hormone such as ghrelin and leptin. Both hormones regulate feelings of hunger and fullness, thus sleep deprivation may lead to eating in excess, which in turn may lead to weight gain.

The secretions of melatonin and growth and thyroid hormones are also influenced by sleep. Melatonin helps induce sleepiness and is influenced by the light-dark cycle (i.e. light suppresses it). Growth hormone is typically secreted during the first few hours of sleep while thyroid hormones are secreted later.

How much sleep is enough?

Children require differing amounts of sleep according to their age, and it is recommended that you follow the guide provided below in order to ensure that your child gets sufficient rest:

0-1 month old: total sleep time (daily) = 15-16 hours

Newborns will typically sleep between 2-4 hours at a stretch for a total of about 15-18 hours a day. Expect your own sleep rhythm to be disrupted at this point as newborns sleep patterns do not follow the usual day/night cycle.

1-4 months old: total sleep time (daily) = 14-15 hours

At around week six, your baby will start to develop a more regular sleep pattern. He may sleep between 4-6 hours and sleep more in the evening.

4-12 months old: total sleep time (daily) = 14-15 hours

During this time, you should try to establish healthy sleeping habits in your child. He would typically have three naps a day, which should be reduced to two when he is 6 months old. Nap times should last an hour or two and can be taken in the morning (around 9am), afternoon (around 2pm), and late afternoon (between 3pm-5pm). By the time he is 6 months old, he should be able to sleep through the night.

1-3 years old: total sleep time (daily) = 12-14 hours

Nap times can be reduced to an early evening nap lasting between 1-3½ hours long. Bedtime should be by 9 pm and they should be awake between 6am-8am.

3-6 years old: total sleep time (daily) = 10-12 hours

Depending on your child, naps may or may not be required. Should he still want/need a nap, keep it short. Maintain the same bedtime/wake-up time.

7-12 years old: total sleep time (daily) = 10-11 hours

During this stage, ensure that your child goes to bed by 9pm, in order to ensure that he gets sufficient sleep for the coming day.

12-18 years old: total sleep time (daily) = 8-9 hours

Sleep is just as crucial for teenagers as it is for younger children. Ensure that your teenager gets at least 8-9 hours of sleep daily in order to ensure that his health and wellbeing do not suffer.

Don’t neglect his sleep

As parents you need to keep in mind that your child needs his sleep. If you have a young child, helping him to develop good sleep habits can be challenging at first, you will be glad that you took the time to get it right as the benefits will continue into his adulthood. Never underestimate the importance of getting enough sleep.

Here are some useful tips for developing good bedtime routines:

  • Keep bedtime consistent – if you decide on 9pm as your child’s bedtime, do not deviate from it significantly. Maintain the same time every day and you will find it easier to put him to bed. Similarly, keep wakeup times consistent too.
  • Wind things down before bedtime – even adults need a transition period to get ready for bed. An effective way to get your child ready for bed is to have a short period of between half an hour to an hour filled with relaxing activities just before bedtime. That means no vigorous play and no gadgets, TV or computer games.
  • Establish a bedtime routine – a simple routine can be getting your child to brush his teeth, reading him a book, and then putting him to bed. Regardless of what routine you pick, stick with it. The important thing is to have a predictable routine that he will associate with sleep.
  • Restrict after-dinner intake – keep your child away from too many sweet treats or foods/drinks that may contain caffeine. Having a sudden jolt of foods high in sugar or caffeine will make him more alert/active before his bedtime, so limit his intake of candies, sodas, ice cream, etc.

Lastly, don’t forget to ensure that he gets enough physical activity throughout the day.

An educational contribution by Malaysian Paediatric Association.

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