4 ways to help your child get enough sleep

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

Children need sleep, plain and simple. We all do. Without enough sleep, we get cranky and, with time, unhealthy. But for children, it’s especially important because the effects of sleep deprivation can lead to lifelong problems.

Studies have shown that not getting enough sleep can contribute to obesity. But even more troubling, studies show that children who don’t get enough sleep can end up with behavioral and learning problems that persist for years and affect a child’s life forever. Teens who don’t get enough sleep are at higher risk for depression and learning problems, and are more likely to get into car accidents and other accidents.

The prevalence of devices such as cell phones and tablets also has implications for sleep. More and more, children are staying up, or being woken up, by these devices. Add to that our achievement culture; between homework and extracurricular activities, many teens simply have less time for sleep.

How much sleep does your child need? Here are the recommended amounts:

  • Infants: 12 to 16 hours (including naps)
  • Toddlers: 11 to 14 hours (including naps)
  • Preschoolers: 10 to 13 hours (including naps)
  • Grade school-aged children: 9 to 12 hours
  • Teens: 8 to 10 hours

Ultimately, though, it’s up to your child. The bottom number is the absolute minimum; some children need closer to the maximum in order to function well. These days, I am finding that many children, especially teens and tweens, aren’t getting enough sleep. It’s common for a teen to tell me that they get 6 to 7 hours a night, which just isn’t enough.

Here are four ways you can help your child get enough sleep

1.  Make sleep a priority. Just like you schedule time for homework, sports, and other activities, schedule time for sleep. Literally. Start from when your child needs to get up in the morning, and then count back the number of hours your child needs to sleep… and set a non-negotiable bedtime. For tweens and teens, this may lead to some tough conversations and decisions about schedules and activities, and may mean cutting back on some activities, finding ways to get homework done earlier, and pushing some leisure activities (like video games) to weekends. If you are going to make it work you will also need to…

2.  Start the bedtime routine earlier. None of us can go right from a physically or mentally intense activity right to sleep. If bedtime is 9:00 pm, that means that your child needs to start winding down between 8 and 8:30 so that they are ready to actually fall asleep at 9. A big part of winding down is to…

3.  Shut off the screens. The blue light emitted from screens can wake up the brain and make it harder to fall asleep. This is particularly true for “small screens” such as phones or tablets that are held closer to the face. Shut them off an hour before you want your child to be asleep. Phones should be charged outside of the bedroom — or at the very least, put in Do Not Disturb mode. If your child tries to tell you they need their phone to wake them up in the morning, buy them an alarm clock.

Another important way to be sure your child gets enough sleep is to…

4.  Keep the same sleep routines on weekends and vacations. A little leeway is okay, like staying up an hour or so later if your child can and will sleep later in the morning (if you have one of those kids who is up at dawn no matter what, staying up later may not work out so well). It throws our bodies off when our sleep schedules change; we do much better when they stay the same.

Remember, too, that children pay more attention to what we do than what we say. If you make your own sleep a priority, you will set a good example for your child — and feel better yourself.

Comments:

  1. Tracy Morgan

    Thanks for this valuable suggestions. Let me give one quick tip on how to help your child get enough sleep.

    Establish a consistent and relaxing bedtime routine that lasts between 20 and 30 minutes and ends in your child’s bedroom.

    Avoid scary stories or TV shows. It’s better to read a favorite book every night than a new one because it’s familiar.

  2. sunil

    As you have said we should make sleep time a priority. I think kids need some kind of an incentive a push to go to bed and have a tight sleep. Bed time stories are good reward for kids to go bed.
    If we make telling kids bedtime stories a daily routine i think , for that one reason , to hear good stories they will , without any compulsion willing to go to bed and get some sleep.

    sunil

  3. Alexia Clark

    thank you for an awesome post, keep sharing such a nice post. it helped my child

  4. Martha Heineman Pieper

    In addition to the sensible ideas above for getting children a night’s sleep, one of the most important is helping children with bad dreams, since one reason children have trouble sleeping is that they have bad dreams. One of the least productive responses, but one that parents are often told to make is to tell children that dreams are not “real” and to show them there is nothing under the bed or in the closet. But telling children that their bad dreams aren’t “really” scary just keeps children running into their parents’ bedroom night after night. Helping children to realize that “dreams are stories we tell ourselves for a reason” and helping them understand that the reason lies with “unfinished business” from the day before will empower children to make sense of their own dreams and put themselves back to bed without having to awaken their parents. I have written a children’s picture book for ages 3 and up, Mommy, Daddy, I Had a Bad Dream! to help children and parents respond constructively to children’s bad dreams. Joey, a bouncy kangaroo has a series of bad dreams which his parents lovingly help him to understand until, by the last one, he is able to understand why he had it and to go back to bed feeling comforted and in charge. With Joey as an example, children will be empowered to think of their bad dreams as puzzles they can solve.