Dr Phil Kieran: Why every child needs a sleep routine

Routine and consistency are key when trying to create good sleeping habits for children, and adults, writes Dr Phil Kieran

NO TECHNOLOGY: Phones, TVs, and computers should not be in the bedroom. It is important for kids to subconsciously associate bed with sleep rather than texting or YouTube. Picture: iStock
NO TECHNOLOGY: Phones, TVs, and computers should not be in the bedroom. It is important for kids to subconsciously associate bed with sleep rather than texting or YouTube. Picture: iStock

Sleep is one of the most important things in life that we take for granted. We all know how much harder life is when we’re not getting enough, particularly in the early years of parenting. So, what can we do to help our children with sleep?

How much sleep does a child need?

This is a common question I get asked as it impacts on every other facet of parenting and can be the source of untold battles in the household.

Although there is not a one-size-fits-all answer, there are some solid guidelines on how many hours are required, based on the child’s age.

The values in the list above reflect the total amount of sleep and so include any time napping.

I also often get asked when should a child stop napping? This is a much more fluid individualised milestone and some children will drop their nap at 15 months, some will still be napping at three years, but the important thing is that, firstly, they get enough sleep and, secondly, that they develop healthy sleep routines and skills which will stand to them in later life.

Usually, we only start talking about sleep when there is a problem, be it defiant behaviours or fatigue/ concentration issues.

Normal sleep pattern for babies is quite disturbed. They tend to have periods of light and heavy sleep which last about 45 minutes each.

Learning to self-soothe and get back to sleep if they wake in a cycle is really important. It’s tempting to soothe a child back to sleep every time they wake, but parents need to help their children learn how to fall asleep by themselves at some time.

It’s easier to help a 12-month-old get to sleep than a 12-year-old.

Something I wasn’t aware of until I had my own kids, is ‘sleep regression’. This is where a child who was previously a good sleeper starts having difficulty with sleep for no clear reason. These It often happens during a developmental milestone. It is common at six months when they are learning to sit and roll and control things in their hands, again at 12 months when they start walking or talking, and again at 18 months. These periods of regression usually settle down of their own accord over two weeks, but it is important not to develop bad sleep habits at this time.

What can you do to improve the sleep habits of your child or teenager?

  • 1. The most important thing to try and establish early on is a good bedtime routine. This means trying to keep bedtimes to the same time every day and waking up at the same time too (no matter how tempting it is to have a long sleep-in during the weekend)
  • 2. Having a bedroom that is set up for sleeping. Your room shouldn’t be too hot or too cold and, ideally, have as little light as possible. Phones shouldn’t go into bedrooms and TVs or computers definitely shouldn’t be in the sleeping area. It is important for kids to subconsciously associate bed with sleep rather than texting or YouTube
  • 3. Physical exercise during the day is really important to help kids to fall asleep and stay asleep. Physical exercise is particularly important for improving sleep quality, so if your child sleeps for enough hours but is always tired, this is something to look into
  • 4. Going to bed immediately after watching a thrilling movie or cliffhanger TV show is just never going to work out. Ideally, something relaxing and interactive between parents and kids will help them wind down before bed. (I say this despite the fact that some nights I am guilty of becoming a climbing frame for my kids before bathtime and have to ask for help to get them to calm down again.)
  • 5. Caffeine. If your child is having trouble sleeping don’t let them drink tea no matter how milky it is, it’s just not a good idea. Tea can reduce their iron absorption which is important for their brain development

There are also a few children who will have sleep problems due to breathing difficulty, so if your child coughs a lot at night or snores very heavily, it is a good idea to bring them to the GP to see if the problem is their weight, their tonsils or adenoids or if they have asthma.

Dr Phil Kieran: Why every child needs a sleep routine

The big take-homes though are routine and consistency. If you stick to the above pointers, more than 90% of children (or adults) will notice a significant improvement in sleep onset and quality within two weeks.

Bear in mind the total sleep requirement, particularly for younger children, as over-tiredness can be a self-perpetuating problem which is hard to crack. You may think that keeping them awake during the day will help with sleep at night, whereas in truth, the opposite may be true.

Fact file

  • Insufficient sleep is a major cause of concentration and behavioural problems
  • Sleep problems are present in 20%-30% of children in studies
  • A bedtime routine is one of the most powerful tools for addressing sleep problems
  • Good sleep habits established in childhood will help with sleep as an adult which is beneficial in mental health and productivity for school and work
  • Younger children who don’t sleep well at night may not be sleeping enough in the daytime
  • No one should have a phone, TV or computer in their bedroom

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