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Oh, for some sweet sleep! Helping your child catch those z's

Published on: March 28, 2011

Helping your child get some sleepWhen your child isn’t getting enough sleep at night, neither are you. That leaves you too tired to work, to parent, to enjoy grown-up activities — and to deal with your kid’s sleep problems. What’s more, your child’s sleep — or lack of it — can affect her ability to learn.

Just how much sleep do kids need? According to the National Sleep Foundation, infants typically sleep nine to 12 hours during the night and take naps for 30 minutes to two hours. Toddlers need about 12-14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, and preschoolers sleep from 11 to 13 hours at night. By age 5, your kids should be getting 10-11 hours of sleep every night.

Rebecca Michi, a Seattle-area children’s sleep specialist and parenting consultant, says sleep problems often begin with poor going-to-sleep habits. She discusses sleep and other child development issues on her radio program, The Rebecca Michi Show, which airs on Monday afternoons at 2 p.m. on KKNW-AM 1150.

We caught up with Michi recently and asked her how sleep issues affect kids.

What sleep problems are the most common in babies and young children?
Many kids can’t fall asleep independently. They need to be rocked or fed; depending on the habit they’ve developed. Many habits have already been formed by the time infants are 3 months old.

Other young children have trouble staying asleep. They wake up frequently during the night and want attention.

How do you know if your child has a sleep problem?
It generally takes a child 20 minutes to fall asleep. If it takes him less time, he may be overtired. If it takes your child much longer, he may also be overtired, or he may not be tired enough. Waking for long periods during the night can also indicate there’s a sleep problem.

What red flags should we watch for?
Your kids might have sleep problems if:

• You need to wake them up and drag them out of bed in the morning.

• They’re more irritable than you think they should be.

• Their eyes are a bit glazed and glassy, with dark circles or big bags under them.

• They fall asleep in the car.

• They’re tired and seem to be sitting down a lot.

• It’s a struggle to get them off the couch to do things in the evenings.

• They seem spaced out and less alert.

Are we finding that more children today have trouble sleeping?
Yes. That’s because so many kids are overscheduled and get to bed late. Let’s say school ends at 3:30, then they have karate or dance class, dinner, then homework. This can start in kindergarten. Then there’s reading time, and you need some family time as well. That’s a lot of time between school ending and a good bedtime.

How does sleep deprivation affect learning and development in children ages 5 to 12?
Everyone needs sleep to restore the brain. If you’re constantly tired, you can’t function properly. If your child is constantly sleep deprived, he won’t be able to learn at school as well as you’d like him to.

For example, lack of sleep will affect a child’s ability to pay attention. Or a child may fall asleep in class. It can also affect behavior; the child might be more short-tempered. Physically, overtired kids won’t have to energy to run around.

Sleep deprivation also affects how kids eat. If they are tired and need a pick-up, they’ll go for the sugary things.

What other ways can lack of sleep affect school performance?
Without enough sleep, a child’s focus and memory will be diminished, and he won’t be able to engage. Every aspect of learning will be compromised in some way. Even as adults, we feel fuzzy when we don’t get enough sleep. We don’t want to be doing much. But as adults, we understand the reason why.

Kids — especially younger ones — don’t understand that sleep problems are the reason things are hard. And teachers might not get that’s why the child is misbehaving in class. Sometimes teachers will ask that a child get tested for ADHD — and in fact, the child might be sleep deprived.

What can we do to help our kids relax before bedtime?
We can try to reduce their anxiety and make sure they don’t go to bed worried.

Spend time reviewing the day with your kids. With younger children, prompt them to talk through their day. Say, “Remember when we got up? Then we had breakfast and went to preschool?” Then they can come up with something they did during the day that they’re trying to process, or discuss something that worries them.

Start the conversation at the dinner table — everyone can talk about their day — then talk again before bedtime.

How important are bedtime routines?
Very! It’s particularly important for kids ages 5 to 10. The routine could include getting jammies on, sitting down to read with Mom or Dad, having a drink, then lights out. It should last no more than 45 minutes and no less than 20.

Routine lets kids relax — and helps the brain stay more relaxed. It’s all about predictability. And kids like predictability.

What else can we do to help kids be better sleepers?
• Don’t rock your infants or toddlers to sleep. That can establish patterns that are difficult to break. It takes 20 days and nights to break a habit.

• Don’t nurse a baby until she falls asleep, and don’t let babies fall asleep every time they take a bottle, especially when they are over 3 months old.

• Make sure you’re in charge, not your toddler. Since they naturally like to be in charge, give them things to be in charge of — what PJs they wear, what books they read, what stuffed animals they take to bed.

• Be consistent. Kids need to know who’s boss. When it’s time to go to sleep, they should learn there’s no point in getting out of bed. If they do get out of bed, take them back to their own bed. Consistently!

• If they watch TV or play computer games, make sure they turn all screens off long before bedtime.

• Eating sweets before bed, or anything with caffeine, such as Coke, can keep kids awake.

• Kids should have a quiet time to relax before bedtime. If they have rough and tumble play, don’t expect them to fall asleep 20 minutes later.

Linda Morgan is ParentMap’s education editor and the author of Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Social, Emo­tional, and Academic Potential.

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