We’ve all heard the rules: everyone needs eight to 10 hours of quality sleep. But how does that change when kids are involved? And what are the consequences of a bad night’s rest for our youngest family members? Keep scrolling to find out.
What happens to your body when you sleep?
When we’re catching up on the winks, our bodies aren’t slacking; they’re refuelling and reloading for tomorrow’s slog. Your brain is wide awake the entire time you’re asleep, busy rewiring the cells, re-enforcing and re-cementing what you’ve learnt, and re-polishing your recalling and reasoning abilities, among others. While all this heavy-duty work is happening, your heart and other organs are getting some much-needed rest, preparing for the next day ahead.
What happens when kids don’t get enough sleep?
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention deems insufficient sleep a looming public health hazard. In short, sleep deprivation makes people more susceptible to diseases such as Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes and depression, whilst further raising the risk of certain cancers. When it comes to the younger generation, a lack of sleep (even if it’s just an hour less of sleep every other night) makes kids slow, whiny and unable to focus.
Lack of sleep can make kids obese and prone to diabetes
If you’re letting screen time get in the way of your little fellow logging a sufficient number of winks per night, this should be your wake-up call.
Basically, lack of sleep puts the body under undue strain to pump the stress hormone cortisol. This in turns brings with it a host of trashy side effects, like causing skin breakouts in teens, wrecking the body’s natural immunity, and making children prone to illnesses and weight gain. If your child doesn’t get enough sleep, the hormones which signal the feeling of fullness and hunger become confused. As a result, kids mistakenly demand food when they just need to be soothed.
If that wasn’t enough, a tired body makes the metabolism go bonkers and kids worn out. They’re more likely to be fatigued in the playground and on playdates. And we all know food cravings coupled with a sedentary lifestyle is no good for anyone.
Mirrors ADHD symptoms
Kids who don’t get enough sleep may also start behaving in a way similar to those who have ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). According to Psychology Today, in children, the symptoms of sleep deprivation are indistinguishable from ADHD. They’ll have a lack of focus, behave impulsively, and can be agitated or excitable. Some even think there is a link between the two.
Sleep wards off the germs
Your child’s terrible recurring cold might just be fixed by a good night’s sleep. A lack of shut-eye pounds the immune system pretty badly. When we sleep, our bodies produce proteins (known as cytokines) which fight illness and stress. Lose the winks and the number of cytokines your body produces takes a dip, lowering the immunity and making your child more prone to germs and infections.
A 2018 study concluded that people who slept less than six to seven hours a day were four times more likely to fall sick than people who get at least eight hours of sleep regularly. While there’s little such data on kids, a similar finding was reported in teens who live in constant sleep debt and are prone to illness.
So how much sleep do children need?
The amount of sleep your child needs varies depending on their age:
While this recommendation comes from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, don’t break a sweat if there’s sleeplessness in Toddlerville. Every child is different – there are sound sleepers and light sleepers – but as long as your cherub falls in the bell curve, there’s no reason to worry.
Is your teen getting enough zzzzz?
In Hong Kong, a 2016 study centred on more than 1,800 school-going children had alarming findings – a third of school children slept only about six to seven hours on weekdays!
If lack of sleep was only about daytime grogginess, then it wouldn’t be a biggie. But lack of zzzs can have a direct impact on the number of As in your kid’s report card, dulling mental sharpness, creativity and analytical thinking.
Academia aside, sleep is the most critical component of a teen’s mental development. According to a study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, each hour of lost sleep is linked with a 38% increased risk of feeling hopeless and sad. Teenagers who get only six hours per night are three times more likely to be clinically depressed than their well-rested peers. Startling, isn’t it?
What if your child isn’t a “good sleeper”?
If you find bedtime to be a constant struggle, don’t worry, you’re not alone. There are a ton of parenting books specialising in getting kids to sleep. We also turned to parenting expert Mary Mountstephen for more expert advice:
- Bedtimes need structure, routine and clear expectations. This means developing routines that don’t involve you as a parent when your child has gone to bed.
- Make sure to keep the bedroom a quiet place and remove any distracting stimulation. When sleeping is an issue, it helps if there is a clear message that a bedroom is for sleeping in and nothing else. Take out the toys, bin the bright duvet and hide the technology for starters. Research shows that this kind of stimulation keeps you awake both mentally and physically. For more advice on this issue, head to The Happy Sleeper.
- The optimal bedtime for children aged 2 to 6 is between 7pm and 8pm, but we know that this can be difficult to fit in with family routines and lifestyles. As such, try to make the bedroom as conducive to sleep as possible. Make sure the room is cool (16-18 degrees), quiet and with low light. It also helps to ensure the bed has soft and light bed linen.
- The bedroom is not a “naughty area”. Never use the bedroom as a place to go when your child has behaved badly. This sends negative messages about the room. The bedroom needs to be a single-function place for young children; a place of very low stimulation that is safe and encourages sleep.
- Wind down for about 40 minutes before going to bed and have a calm pre-sleep activity that is the same every night, such as reading a story together. This means a “real” storybook, not a screen!
- For children who really struggle with sleep, social stories can be useful. If your child has (or possibly has) Autistic Spectrum Disorders, this site might help.
- Keep a sleep diary as this can help identify patterns.
- If your child comes into your room, be impassive. Return them to bed with no positive or negative response and try to avoid eye contact. Take them back every time.
- Finally, make sure everyone involved (including helpers, other caretakers and even older siblings) knows the routine and sticks to it.
At the end of the day, ensuring your child gets a good night’s sleep is easier said than done, so don’t worry. Up to 30% of children experience a sleep problem at some point during their childhood! A successful routine may take a few days, or even weeks, to master, but hang in there – having a happy sleeper will all be worth it!
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 28, June 2018 by Nikita Mishra and updated on 19, August 2019 by Jess Ng.