As kids get back to school, balancing homework with sports and time with friends, parents often ask, “How much sleep do they need?”
The answer depends on your child’s age. Typically, elementary school children require 9 -10 hours, and middle and high school kids need about 8.5-9 hours.
There’s good reason to make sure school-aged kids get the rest they need. A proper night’s sleep restores and clears a brain’s function after daily activities, it consolidates experiences, and maximizes learning potential. It also enhances mood, boosts the immune system and increases endurance. Sleep deprivation can lead to fatigue, irritability, poor concentration, low resistance to infections, anger outbursts and flare ups of chronic conditions. Those can include asthma, eczema, acne and excessive weight gain.
What’s more, during sleep the pituitary gland produces growth hormone. We need growth hormone not only for linear growth, but also for protein, fat and sugar metabolism. Growth hormone deficiency can lead to diabetes, obesity, delayed puberty, decreased bone density, poor memory and social withdrawal. Cell and tissue regeneration and healing also depends on growth hormone, and therefore, on sleep.
Sometimes health issues, such as thyroid diseases, anemia, vitamin D deficiency, sleep apnea (due to enlarged tonsils and adenoids, anxiety, depression and substance abuse) or ADHD, can cause sleep depravation. Further, the medications taken for these conditions can cause insomnia, compounding the issue.
Fortunately, the most common causes of sleep disturbances are poor sleep hygiene.
How can you help your children get proper rest?
- Be a good role model. Stick to a schedule for yourself. Keep bedtime routine warm and cordial, but short. Sometimes guilt-ridden working parents prolong the bedtime routine, encouraging “curtain calls,” when the child cannot settle to sleep and comes out of his room repeatedly. That should be discouraged. Kids should wake up at the same time in the morning even during weekends, though it might be a nuisance to parents.
- Encourage physical activity. Being tired from physical exertion helps tremendously. There is a famous quote by Benjamin Franklin “Fatigue is the best pillow.”
- Be sensitive to light. Dim the lights about 1 hour prior to bedtime to boost the release of endogenous melatonin. When it’s time to wake your child up in the morning, lift the curtains and switch on the light at least half an hour before wake up time. It is helpful to increase daytime light exposure as well.
- Keep electronics to a minimum. Backlit screens interfere with the release of natural melatonin in our bodies. Bedrooms should be completely free of electronics at night and you should start limiting their use 1-2 hours prior to bedtime.
- Get in the mood. A very warm shower before going to bed helps to gradually lower body temperature, which promotes falling asleep. Light classical music and massages are not for babies only. Even older kids appreciate and benefit from a gentle back rub.
- Snacks allowed. A light bedtime snack is OK before brushing teeth, like a glass of warm milk with honey. Nothing with caffeine should be served in the afternoon, including chocolate and hot cocoa.
- Keep bedrooms clean, uncluttered and well ventilated. Keep the temperature around 70 degrees F, and humidity at 45% or more. The bed should be of a good size, not too short or narrow, with a good quality firm mattress.
- Meditate. Relaxation and meditation techniques can be taught even to young kids. Simple exercises include tightening and relaxing sequential muscle groups, like clenching teeth and letting go, curling toes and relaxing them as leaves of a palm tree, making a fist and opening it. There are some excellent readings to master the best relaxation techniques including:
- Ready… Set… R.E.L.A.X.: A Research-Based Program of Relaxation, Learning, and Self-Esteem for Children by Jeffrey S. Allen, Jeffrey S. Allen, Med, Roger J. Klein;
- Cool Cats, Calm Kids: Relaxation and Stress Management for Young People by Mary Williams and Dianne O’Quinn Burke.
- Try herbal sleep aids. In instances, you may want to try the following natural remedies:
- Valerian root and Passionflower are frequently used. They are part of Calm tablets, Insomnia formula, Yogi organic bedtime tea and other herbal products. They have a safe profile and are recommended to kids.
- Chamomile has very mild sedative properties, but use caution in children with ragweed and related plants allergies.
- Lavender can be used as relaxing aromatherapy. A few drops of the essential oil on the pillow or in the bathtub are all that is necessary.
- Lemon balm is generally safe, but should be avoided in children with thyroid problems.
- Melatonin 1-5 mg is also a safe alternative, though larger dose can increase seizure activity in children with epilepsy.
- Keep bedding clean. Children with allergies should have special mattresses and pillow covers. The child should never go to bed with daytime clothes on.
If for some reason all of the above fails, don’t despair. Talk to your pediatrician. There are physicians, specializing in sleep medicine and centers for sleep studies. In some cases, a cognitive therapist might help with changing behavior patterns. You are not alone!
Additional reading: The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society and The National Sleep foundation.