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Importance of Getting Those ZZZs

By Dr. Rachna Sharma

As parents how many times have you said to your children, “Ok, it is time to sleep.”  Very often the answer you may receive is “Nooooooo, we want to stay awake,” “I want to play some more,” “I’m talking to my friend,” “Sleep is so boring,” or the most famous one, “I’m not even tired, I don’t need to go to sleep!!”  It is a hard battle to fight especially when you yourself are tired and have had a long day. But, you can not underestimate the importance of a good night’s rest for your children. It is fundamental for every person to rest their mind, body and spirit during these nighttime hours in order to lead a productive day.  Sleep plays a vital role in a person’s overall health and well-being. In fact, getting the right amount of good quality sleep is key for good mental and physical health, overall quality of life and safety.

So, why is sleep so important?  First and foremost, sleep is restorative.  It is a time when all the business of the day comes to an end and your mind and body can rejuvenate.  These days, a child’s life is filled with extremely busy schedules from school, after school activities, homework, extracurricular activities, camp…. the list goes on and on.  Simply put, sleep will allow your body to rest for the next full day of activities, and trust me the days are always going to be full. Your brain also needs sleep. Sleep will help your brain work properly. It gives your brain the opportunity to assimilate and organize what it has learned from the day and to form new pathways to allow learning for the next day.  It also helps your brain focus, make decisions and be creative for the next day. Sleep is also an important part of socialization; kids who get a good night’s sleep will relate better to their peers and to adults as well. Sleep also has an effect on growth and development. Deep sleep triggers the body to release hormones that promote normal growth in children and teens.   Lastly, sleep helps your immune system to stay healthy and fight off infections.

Sleep is actually broken down into 5 stages and the last 4 get repeated throughout the night.  Stage 1 is when your body starts getting signals to relax; Stage 2 is considered light sleep; Stage 3 and 4 are stages of deep sleep with 4 being the deeper of the two; and this is followed by R.E.M sleep (rapid eye movement).  R.E.M is the stage of sleep when people dream. In order to feel rested, it is important to allow yourself to complete the cycles of these stages. If this is done, it is said that you are getting a good quality of sleep, which is important for good physical, mental and developmental health.

So how much sleep is the right amount of sleep for your child?  This refers to the quantity of sleep. Toddlers (ages1-3) require 12-14 hours of sleep which can include naptime.  Preschoolers (ages 3-5) need about 11-13 hours of sleep a night. This is a time where it is important to start to develop good sleep habits.  Setting up a bedtime routine often helps to do this. This is also a time where children may start to show nighttime fears and have nightmares, reassuring your preschooler that they are safe and that you are always there for them is important to overcome these fears.  School-aged Children (ages 5-12 years) require 10-11 hours of sleep. Teens require 9-10 hours of sleep. Starting in the school age is the period where there will be an increasing demand on time for school, homework and extracurricular activities. It is also a time where TV and social media start to crop up in your kid’s lives. Very often the end result of this will be bedtime resistance and poor and inadequate sleep.    

When kids get poor quality and quantity of sleep, this can be considered sleep deficiency.  Sleep deficiency can interfere with school, social functioning and disposition. It causes problems in learning focusing and reacting.  Kids who are sleep deficient are less productive, take longer to finish tasks and have a slower reaction time. Kids may be overactive and unable to focus.  They also may feel angry, impulsive, have mood swings and lack motivation. Studies show that sleep deficiency can be linked to obesity and risky behaviors, such as cigarette smoking and early alcohol use.  Chronic sleep deficiency can also affect your immune system making it hard for it to fight off common infections, so kids who are sleep deficient may frequently have colds, stomach viruses etc.

So how can you ensure that kids understand and get the appropriate amount of sleep?  It starts with the parents understanding that they have to teach their children about sleep just like we teach them about proper diet and nutrition, manners etc.  And the earlier we start the better. So start in the early years to develop a bedtime routine and keep this routine as best as you can. A typical bedtime routine can be bath time, story time, bedtime.   Keep this routine consistent into the preschool and early school age years. When kids start to question, why they have to go to sleep, explain it in terms they understand. Don’t make sleep punitive, instead be positive about it and explain how their mind and body need to rest.  Try to avoid the bedroom as a place of time outs or punishment so kids don’t resist going into their bedroom at night. Try to make sure that children have the same bedtime every night. As children get older, they may become more obstinate about going to sleep, it is important to stand your ground. Don’t let them watch television or play on the computer close to bedtime as this can be over stimulating to them. Avoid juices, and high sugar drinks or caffeinated beverages anywhere near bedtime as this will directly interfere with them falling asleep.  Try to be firm in continuing to stick with an evening routine. This even starts with dinnertime being at the same time so kids know how much time they have between dinner and bedtime. You also want to allow enough time between meals and bedtime as feeling overly full can cause an uncomfortable sleep. Continue to stress the importance of sleep to your teenager so that understand why they need to get a good night’s rest.

So what happens to sleep in the summertime and on the weekends?   I understand that it may be hard to stick to the same routine during these times but as a whole, there should not be much variance in the weekends and in the summer.  While there will be some wiggle room for bedtimes, you still need to ensure that children continue to get the right quality and quantity of sleep. Most sources feel that bedtimes should only be extended by an hour, since on the weekends and summer most kids will still have activities to attend. You can create a separate summer and weekend routine for your kids and have them stick to it as best as they can.  With teenagers, you may need to impose a media curfew and a wake time so that they are more naturally inclined to sleep at a reasonable hour. In the summertime, darken the room if it is still bright outside to help the child settle down into sleep. Make sure the temperature is not too warm or too cold so your child is comfortable and not restless. The key is routine and consistency during these times to make sure that all schedules do not go out the window.

Sleep may be something that is underestimated in terms of its importance and function. But the honest truth is that every human being will function better, interact better and feel overall better if they are getting a good night’s rest.  When your child is getting the amount and type of sleep they need, they are going to be in a better state of mind and display better overall behavior, which is going to in turn affect the way you as a parent feel and function as well. So, as usual it begins with you as the parent to start to instill this in your children now no matter what age they presently may be.  Be a good model for them and practice good sleep habits for yourself as well. Make sleep a priority in your house in order to not short change yourself and your children from the benefits of getting those Zzzzzzzz’s!


References: Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.  Marc Weissbluth. Random House Publishing. 2003.

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