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Sleep during childhood, 5 – 13 year olds

Why is sleep important? What is typical and natural sleep for children?

This section summarises some key points about children’s sleep and shares some excellent resources where more detailed information can be found.  Sleep is essential to support development; it helps children to grow, to concentrate and to remember things.  Well rested children are more able to meet their full potential in every aspect of their lives.

 

Our Biological Clock…A Case of Light and Hormones

Our “Biological Clock” is responsible for ensuring that we get enough sleep. Unlike babies and infants the biological clock is more established by childhood.

It’s the body’s way of making sure we get enough rest – it is triggered by light and darkness.  During the day the brain releases chemicals that build up and lead us to feel tired.  The longer that we are awake, the more tired we become which increases our biological need to sleep, this is what is known as sleep pressure.  Usually this means that we will feel sleepy at roughly the same time each day.  Some things that we eat and drink can affect this process such as sugar and caffeine, making it harder for us to fall asleep.

Melatonin is a hormone that is produced when it gets dark and helps us go to sleep.  The light from screens such as mobiles, laptops and T.V.s can stop your brain producing Melatonin and can subsequently make it harder for you to fall asleep.

 

The Impact of our Environment

Often this works in sync with our sleep/wake cycle for example, reduced light at night time, lack of noise, meal times, temperature and the behaviour and social cues of those around us (e.g. getting ready for bed).  However, if these things are out of sync with our sleep/wake cycle (e.g. too much light from screens, being overtired, and too much caffeine/sugar) this can stop the release of the chemicals that control our sleep/wake cycle and make it harder for us to fall asleep.

 

A few bedtime routine tips

  • Make sure the bedtime routine for your child is realistic, especially the times at which you start the routine
  • Turn off all screens an hour before bedtime
  • Get ready for bed in the same order
  • Wake children up at the same time each morning to help strengthen their sleep-wake cycle
  • Prioritise a dark or dim-lit environment to promote Melatonin and reinforce the biological clock

 

Common sleep problems in childhood

Self-settling

Often children can’t settle themselves to sleep at the start of the night. Supporting children to soothe themselves to sleep can be done gently and gradually.

Changes in routine

Changes in routine can affect sleep. Holidays and celebrations are wonderful times but many families struggle afterwards to get their children to sleep. Sticking to a routine as much as possible is helpful and will ensure your child feels secure.

Feeling hungry or thirsty

Adding a supper time can help with hunger pangs at night. If your child is thirsty offer water. Diet is important and what is consumed during the day can impact on sleep. It’s best to avoid anything sugar loaded during the evening such as biscuits and cakes. Caffeine is a stimulant so tea, coffee, cola and even hot chocolate are best avoided. Good choices are anything calcium based such as yoghurt, fromage frais or a glass of milk, and porridge is a great supper time snack.

Fear / anxiety

Some children may be genuinely fearful of the dark. Story books that talk about this fear can be helpful (there’s a helpful book list in the organisations and website section below). Is it okay to use a night light?  There are many reasons why it might be okay to install a night light in your child’s room.  But there are also reasons it may be best not to and you may need some toddler sleep help. Here are the top pros and cons.  Where fear or anxiety is severe it may be necessary to seek advice from your GP to see if specialist support is necessary.

Discomfort

The bed needs to have a supportive mattress. This is particularly important for growing children.  An unsupportive mattress can result in aches and pains leading to problems in adulthood.  Some children may be uncomfortable due to medical conditions, for example children with eczema may find it harder to get comfortable at night time.  Common colds can make children feel uncomfortable and disrupt sleep.

Night time wetting

Bedwetting is common in children.  Maintaining a consistent approach is useful and if your child does wet the bed try to change them in a dimly lit environment with as little talking as possible.

If you are concerned with bedwetting there’s useful advice on these websites:

NHS Choices website – Bedwetting

ERIC – The Children’s Bowel and Bladder Charity

Sensory issues

If your child is very sensitive to noise during the day they are likely to be the same at night.  This means that simple noises like the heating clicking on or a toilet flushing can wake them easily.  Likewise some children are very sensitive to touch and do not want to be covered at night time, this can result in them becoming too cold and waking as a result. Consider what your child is wearing in bed that can help them to maintain a steady temperature throughout the night.

Night terrors and nightmares

Many children experience nightmares and night terrors but most grow out of them and they do not cause any long term harm.  Night terrors are very different from nightmares:-

Night Terrors

This behaviour occurs on waking abruptly from deep, non-dream (non-REM) sleep.  Your child will appear terrified but is actually asleep.  Your child won’t take comfort from you

What to do

  • Wait for the terror to pass and then settle them back to sleep
  • When night terrors are regular, try rousing your child 10 minutes before they usually happen for two weeks to break the cycle

Nightmares

These are bad dreams that children wake from.  Nightmares occur from dream sleep (REM sleep).  Your child may wake up from the nightmare and, depending on their age, may be able to remember and describe the bad dream to you.  Your child will take comfort from you

What to do

  • Reassure them it was a dream
  • Do not reinforce the nightmare – there is no need to look under beds for monsters as they don’t exist remember!

 

If you are concerned about night terrors or nightmares there’s useful advice here:

NHS Choices – night terrors and nightmares

 

Summary

All children are individuals and will have individual sleep needs. The following are important to remember:

  • Children pick up on your anxiety, try to remain calm as bedtime approaches.
  • A bedtime routine is extremely important to support your child in relaxing. Bedtime routines need some thought and forward planning; being consistent is essential.
  • Think about what might be causing the sleep issues and then work out the best way to address it. If you are worried discuss this with your school nurse or your GP.
  • It takes children time to learn a new behaviour, including at night. Follow through any changes you make for at least two weeks to begin to see an improvement.
  • Make sure your child is comfortable in their bed and the bedroom environment is a relaxing one.