Our children’s health is incredibly important, as well as increasingly newsworthy in the digital age. Physical activity and good nutrition are constantly cited as areas for improvement, leaving schools, teachers, parents, carers and society grappling with a bombardment of dietary advice and exercise drills.

But there is one vital area of child’s health which seems to be poorly recognised and under reported – the matter of children’s sleep. Sleep can be a contentious topic, and it can seem like becoming a parent means that you are judged on how well your baby, toddler or teen is kipping, leading to a burden of societal pressure and expectation. Family life can be chaotic – especially if you have children of different ages, and the home environment can throw up many barriers to sleep. For many parents’ carers or guardians, problem sleeping can be an undisclosed nightmare, a silent and chronic problem that causes your entire family to be stressed, sleep deprived and over caffeinated. Whether it’s taking hours to get your child to lie down in bed, they are constantly popping up throughout the night, or they simply don’t sleep for long enough, your child (and yourself) may be facing some serious sleep deprivation. 

You don’t need research to tell you that sleep affects children’s mood and behaviour, so consistent poor behaviours may be a sign of sleep deprivation in younger children. In teens where sleep deprivation may be less obvious, “ill sufficient, ill-timed and irregular” sleep can all be signs of inadequate rest.

If you’ve been having some issues then this article is here to help, to give you the facts about sleep, and give you some simple advice on changes you might make to optimise sleep, or tackle any problems – big or small.

Why is sleep so important?

Sleep may seem sedentary, but for your child’s body it’s an incredibly active time for growth, repair and memory consolidation. Release of growth hormone during deep sleep is vital for normal organ and bone development, and sleep is also the time when short term memory is converted to long term memory. Appetite control can also be thrown off by lack of sleep due to hormonal dysfunction.

It’s not surprising then that a lack of shut eye has been linked to obesity, impaired emotional control, worse performance at school, and a whole host of other problems. On a common sense level this makes sense; fatigue leaves you feeling peckish, irritable and not in a good mood for learning. You can argue that sleep is the most important aspect of child health, without it, physical activity and healthy eating become infinitely harder – let alone maintaining good social relationships, hobbies and school work.

How much sleep does my Child Need?

There’s no exact figure for how much sleep your child needs but there are guidelines for each age – found here on the NHS website. A 4 year needs around 11.5 Hours, whilst a 9 year old may need 10. Because children are growing quickly and processing a vast amount of information, they will need significantly more sleep than we as adults are used to. Even teenagers are recommended to get between 8 and 10 hours.

How do we get to sleep?

Whether we are ready to sleep depends largely on the release of the hormone melatonin. The eye is extremely sensitive to light, and signals the release of melatonin when it gets dark. This prepares our body and mind for sleep, and we quickly begin to feel drowsy. Unfortunately technology has interfered with this natural rhythm, the blue light emitted from screens is especially detrimental – quickly causing the suppression of melatonin release. So if your toddler is watching the TV or an IPad at 7pm, they can still be bouncing around all evening, and genuinely won’t feel tired. Teenagers are likely to be highly affected by this issue, with many having all sorts of blue light emitting tech at their disposal. For more information on tech, try this article by Foodtalk’s own Laura Jabri.

Adenosine also plays a role in sleepiness, and its receptor is blocked by caffeine. Some studies suggest caffeine consumption even 6 hours before sleep may reduce sleep time by one hour. While this does seem quite extreme, there’s no arguing with the fact that caffeine keeps us up. When you say caffeine we mostly think of coffee, perhaps tea. But for our children far more relevant are soft drinks like coke and diet coke, and energy drinks like Lucozade.

A recent study showed that 28.5% of children consumed a caffeinated beverage daily, and those that did had 15 minutes less sleep per night than those that didn’t. Likewise 42.4% had a TV in their bedroom, and those with three technology items in their room had 45 minutes less sleep per night than those without any. While even 15 minutes doesn’t sound like much, that amounts to 91 hours or almost 4 straight days’ worth of sleep lost each year.

 What can we do about problem sleeping? 

The tips below are all proven to aid sleep, so you might consider trying some out if you or your child is suffering. Whilst these tips seem simple, they are by no means “easy” for every family to implement. Changing habits is always difficult, and trying these out when you are at your most tired can seem like climbing a mountain on crutches! The best advice would be to just pick one at a time, introduce it slowly, get you and your child used to the idea, and cut your child and yourself some slack if you have problems. Problematic sleep is not something that can be fixed overnight (pun intended!).

  • Fix the Technology: We’ve already seen that tech can throw us off our sleeping game, but prising that phone/tablet/laptop/games console from your toddler/teen/spouse (!) can be like trying to amputate a limb. Instead there are a few gentler ways to reduce the impact of tech if going cold turkey is not an option. The aim here is to block the blue light (melatonin suppressor) coming from your screens, by the nifty use of red light filters. Night-mode/night-shift on phones can be useful, as well as a filter like lux on laptops or desktops. If you want to go the whole hog, blue blocking glasses are available. Recommendations vary between 30 to 90 minutes before bed as being optimum to start your blue blocking.
  • Fix the Lights: Going to the effort of blocking blue light from screens is fairly pointless if your ambient lighting remains the same. Using dimmed lighting and smaller lamps, or even red tinted lamps will aid melatonin production. The last thing many of us do before bed is brush our teeth in bright bathroom lights – so this is a key area to dim, or even try brushing teeth earlier in the evening. Streetlights and other outdoor lighting can also be very distracting – so you could try blackout blinds
  • Fix the Noise: Noise can also be very distracting before bed, so using earplugs can be helpful for some people. Other families find the opposite – that their child actually responds well to white noise from an app or machine.
  • Ditch the Caffeine: Limit caffeinated beverages to before lunch if you can, especially for children.
  • Have a hot shower or bath 30 minutes before bedtime: Core body temperature reduces as we get drowsy and fall asleep, and a hot bath or shower can work to speed this along. As you warm up, blood flow to the surface of your body increases, reducing core temperature.

There are a whole host of other sleep tips out there, from eating melatonin rich foods to using essential oils like lavender. These key tips are just the starting point to figure out if there are any obvious boundaries to your child sleeping.

Does my child have a medical sleep disorder?

Some children may have sleep related disorders, and conditions like depression, anxiety, autism and ADHD also affect sleep. See your GP if your child has particularly bad sleeping problems, chronic sleep deprivation or if the obvious culprits aren’t to blame after several tries to improve sleeping habits.

Where to go for more help?

For a longer breakdown of sleep and sleep deprivation at different ages, try here. The NHS also has some useful information and guidance here. Don’t suffer in silence; there are tools to help even the most problematic sleepers! Good luck, and happy sleeping.

 

Charlie Rose Howard, Dietetic Student

Charlie is a BSc Nutrition and Dietetics student at King’s College London. She’s interested in all things public health, child health, and evidence based. Tweet her @charlieroseRD2B

Foodtalk blog posts are written by a variety of health and care professionals in order to showcase different perspectives in the world of nutrition and health.