Sleep is one of the most important requirements in early childhood development. Which is why it is important to understand your child's sleep and how you can help him or her develop good sleep habits.

Understanding your child’s sleep habits

By the age of two, most children have spent more time asleep than awake, and, overall, a child will spend 40 percent of his or her childhood asleep. Sleep is especially important for children as it directly impacts mental and physical development.

Circadian rhythms, or the sleep-wake cycle, are regulated by light and dark, and these rhythms take time to develop, resulting in the irregular sleep schedules of newborns. The rhythms begin to develop at about 6 weeks, and by 3 to 6 months most infants have a regular sleep-wake cycle.

There are two alternating types or states of sleep:

  1. Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) or 'quiet' sleep. During the deep states of NREM sleep, blood supply to the muscles is increased, energy is restored, tissue growth and repair occur, and important hormones are released for growth and development.
  2. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) or 'active' sleep. During REM sleep, our brains are active, and dreaming occurs. Our bodies become immobile; breathing and heart rates are irregular.

Babies spend 50 percent of their time in each of these states, and the sleep cycle is about 50 minutes. At about 6 months of age, REM sleep comprises about 30 percent of sleep. By the time children reach preschool age, the sleep cycle is about every 90 minutes.

Helping your newborn develop good sleep habits

For newborns, sleep during the early months occurs around the clock, and the sleep-wake cycle interacts with the need to be fed, changed and nurtured. Newborns sleep a total of 10.5 to 18 hours a day on an irregular schedule with periods of 1 to 3 hours spent awake. The sleep period may last a few minutes to several hours.

Sleep tips for Newborns

(1-2 months)

  1. Observe baby's sleep patterns. (During sleep, newborns are often active: arm twitching, smiling, etc.)
  2. Identify signs of sleepiness. (i.e. some fuss, cry or rub their eyes)
  3. Put baby in the crib when drowsy, not asleep.
  4. Place baby to sleep on his or her back with face and head clear of blankets and other soft items.
  5. Encourage night time sleep.

Helping your infant develop good sleep habits

By 6 months of age, night time feedings are usually not necessary, and many infants sleep through the night; 70-80 percent will do so by 9 months of age. Infants typically sleep 9-12 hours during the night and take 30-minute to 2-hour naps, one to four times a day - fewer as they reach age one.

When infants are put to bed drowsy but not asleep, they are more likely to become "self-soothers," which enables them to fall asleep independently at bedtime and put themselves back to sleep during the night. Those who have become accustomed to parental assistance at bedtime often become "signalers" and cry for their parents to help them return to sleep during the night.

Sleep tips for Infants

(3-11 months)

  1. Develop regular daytime and bedtime schedules.
  2. Create a consistent and enjoyable bedtime routine.
  3. Establish a regular "sleep-friendly" environment.
  4. Encourage baby to fall asleep independently and to become a "self-soother".

Helping your school-age children sleep well

Overscheduled kids

School-age children, ages 5 to 12, require 10-11 hours of sleep. During this age, most children are also experiencing increasing demand on their time from school, in the form of homework, sports and other extracurricular and social activities. They also become more interested in TV shows, using computers, the media and Internet as well as caffeinated products.

All of these can cause difficulties falling asleep, nightmares and disruptions to their sleep. For example, watching TV close to the bedtime hour has been associated with bedtime resistance, difficulty falling asleep, anxiety around sleep and sleeping fewer hours.

Recognising when your child is overscheduled

Kids who spend more time in extracurricular activities at the expense of sleep time simply do not perform as they should. It should be clear that lack of sleep compromises many of the skills that make for academic success - attention, organization, creative thinking, and efficiency. It also erodes the motivation that kids have to do well in the first place.

Furthermore, without some wind-down time in the evening, the expectation that kids can easily go from full-throttle, 100km-an-hour-active to all-of-a-sudden-fast-asleep is not only unrealistic but may contribute to some serious difficulties in their ability to fall asleep.

Make compromises when it comes to your child's extracurricular activities instead of when it comes to sleep. There are no easy choices. Ask yourself if you might be giving a subconscious but nonetheless crystal-clear message to your child that (a) getting enough sleep is optional, (b) you would be willing to sacrifice sleep for the possibility of long-term academic gains and (c) you don't get a lot of sleep so they don't need to either.

Sleep tips for school-age children

  1. Teach school-age children about healthy sleep habits
  2. Continue to emphasize the need for a regular and consistent sleep schedule and bedtime routine.
  3. Make your child's bedroom conducive to sleep - dark, cool and quiet.
  4. Remove TV and computers from the bedroom.
  5. Avoid caffeine in all forms.
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