The importance of sleep

Sleep difficulties in children are very common problems for families. It is very normal for a child to have some aspect of sleep disturbances in their lives. Sleep is the foundation for positive physical, mental, and emotional health. Sometimes it can be more apparent when children are getting too little sleep rather than the right amount of sleep. Typically, we can recognise when a child or teenager has not gotten enough sleep if they appear excessively sleepy during the day, irritable, not as alert as usual, or unable to concentrate fully. We are less able to recognise that a child who seems hyperactive may be exhausted. For many children, when they are not getting enough sleep, their body produces hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) in an effort to try and keep them awake. This in turn gives the impression that children have lots of energy and are not in need of rest.  

It can be difficult to know how much sleep is sufficient sleep; different people have different sleep needs. Lack of sleep is considered a problem when: a child is obtaining less sleep than is needed for normal growth and development; a child’s emotional and psychological health is affected; if there is an impact on a child’s immune system; and/or if it affects the wider family.

There are many practical reasons why a child or teenager may wake during the night or find it difficult to fall asleep, such as illness, hunger, excitement, being too hot or too cold, bad dreams, or needing to go to the toilet. Worrying thoughts occurring in a child’s mind when they are trying to get to sleep or waking them up at night are also very common reasons for sleep difficulties. If your child is finding it difficult to sleep due to worries it may be useful to encourage them to find some way of letting their worries out before bedtime. Depending on the age of your child this might mean writing them down or having allocated ‘worry time’ for 15 minutes. Another useful strategy for children who find it difficult to sleep due to worries includes breathing exercises. For younger children this can be in the form of ‘belly breathing’ or teenagers may try it in the form of mindfulness.

Screen time (phones, tablets, TV, etc.) is one of the biggest issues that prevents us from falling asleep easily. The bright light on the screen stimulates our brain and makes us more awake rather than sleepy. We also know that the blue light emitted from our devices supresses melatonin which is the chemical that regulates sleep and wakefulness. Similarly, the videos or TV programmes that we watch can make us more alert by stimulating and distracting our brain. It is best to stop all screen time one-two hours before bedtime so that our brains have a chance to wind down and prepare for sleep. All stimulating activities such as, screen time, energetic games should be eliminated before bedtime and replaced with calming activities such as, bath time, lullabies, or reading relaxing stories.

Top tips for a good nights’ sleep

‘Sleep hygiene’ refers to practicing habits and strategies which promote sleep and improve sleep problems.  Poor sleep hygiene is usually indicated by frequent sleep disturbances, daytime sleepiness, and taking too long to fall asleep. Making a few simple changes can hugely benefit your child’s quality of sleep.

  1. Consistency

Consistent bedtime routines are a proven strategy to decrease anxieties surrounding bedtime.  It is important to stick to the same bedtime and wake time every day, even on weekends. Your child should have a predictable series of events which lead up to bedtime. Bedtime routines should be calm and relaxed, as opposed to rushed.

  1. Beds are for sleeping

If your child has difficulty falling asleep, they should try getting out of bed and engaging in a calming activity, such as reading a book. As a child tosses and turns in bed more, their negative associations with bedtime can increase. Bedrooms should be kept solely for sleeping so try to avoid sending your child to their bedroom as a punishment or allowing them to complete their homework in their room as they develop negative associations.

  1. Good sleep environment

Children should have a sleep environment which is consistent, comfortable, and quiet.  A relaxed and calm environment is essential for falling asleep easily. A child’s bedroom should be cool, quiet, and comfortable. Sunlight should be blocked out in order to help children fall asleep easily.

  1. No screen time

Screens are proven to interfere with falling asleep easily. Children should stop all screen time one-two hours before bed.

This article was written by HSE Primary Care Child and Family Psychology Services, a member of Parenting Limerick. Parenting Limerick is a network of parenting and family support organisations.