Parenting forums buzz and books fly off the shelf on the topic of how to get babies to ‘sleep through the night’. However, when children get a little older their sleep routine is equally important. Expanding minds, especially those who are reaching school age and beyond need sufficient sleep for the brain to learn and develop appropriately. Studies have shown that even an extra 30 minutes’ sleep per day can improve school marks.
In reality, with the time pressures of school routine and after-school activities, balancing childcare and busy parent’s work life, some primary school age children are showing signs of chronic sleep deprivation. These days many children are putting in ‘work days’ almost as long as the adults in their lives. A significant number of primary school children are having, on average, 30 – 90 minutes less sleep than recommended per day. Losing sleep is akin to taking money from a bank – every minute borrowed must be paid back or there are consequences.
Studies have shown that ongoing loss of sleep leads to changes in behaviour and concentration that can be akin to symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder. Many of us are familiar with the ‘witching hour’ when children, in hour before bedtime, become increasingly cranky, irrational and tantrum prone with the onset of fatigue after a long day. With more chronic sleep deprivation (of a little as 30 minutes/day) this altered behaviour can extend to daytime hours with poor concentration and sleepiness thrown in.
So just how much sleep do children at this age need?
Pre- schoolers (3-5 years old) require somewhere between 10-13 hours per day. 6-13 year old still need 9-11 hours sleep per day.
With busy lives the temptation (or necessity) may be to allow children to stay up late in order for parents just to complete tasks, homework or spend a little time with their children after work. However, if you look at the time children need to get up in the morning to be in school and work backwards many children of this age may have a routine bedtime that is too late.
Research has shown that consistency at bedtime, with a well versed routine for winding down (e.g. bath, stories and no screen time) works just as well for older children as babies. Along with an early bedtime between 7pm and 8pm, this is likely to lead to a better night sleep of sufficient duration to feel fully rested.
30% of pre-schoolers and greater than 40% of school children have a television in their room. Amongst older primary school children up to 80% have smart phones and 3 out of 4 of these use them while in bed. Research has shown that for adults and children alike, screen use - particularly the ‘blue light’ associated with tablets and smart phones disrupts circadian rhythms / melatonin production. This is worst when used within an hour of bedtime.
So if your children seem to be struggling through the day, or you are yourself exhausted due to the daily grind and interrupted sleep it may be time to review the sleep habits of all members of the family. Providing an environment conducive to an adequate night sleep is as important for your family’s health and wellbeing as diet or exercise.