Sleep is amazing, it helps our immune systems and supports our bodies to rebuild and repair. It even allows our minds to process information we have gathered through the day and is therefore a critical part of learning and memory.
It can be a big source of worry for us as parents if our child just isn’t getting enough sleep. Lying awake at night can feel lonely and frightening for children. Equally it can be tough on parents when their sleep is interrupted by late night visitors, especially if they also struggle with getting enough good quality rest. There can be a number of factors which affect sleep, these can range from anxiety to a change of season, affecting how much light is coming into your child’s room. Working out the cause of your child’s sleep can involve a bit of detective work and some trial and error. Here are some things to think about which could help both you and your child:
A good sleep environment
Not all children enjoy sleeping in their own room, the age at which solo slumber feels comfortable can vary enormously. I know some teenagers who still like to sleep in their parent’s beds when they get the chance. Humans are tribal animals: We are at our most vulnerable when we sleep and the desire not to sleep alone links back to a primal survival instinct.
Is your child ready to be in their own room at night? If they are frequently getting out of bed or calling out to you this could be a sign that they are not. If so you could explore the possibility of setting up a bed for them in your room or allowing your child to share your bed. If you are worried about this affecting your sex life, mix things up by experimenting with other times of day for love making!
Your child’s bedroom should be a space where they feel safe and comfortable, if you decide that sleeping in their own room is the right choice for your family. A dark room often helps us to fall and stay asleep but some children may benefit from a night light if they are anxious about being alone. Some will need us to be in or near their room so that they feel safe enough to snooze. The ideal temperature for a bedroom is 18 degrees celsius. Sleep suits or specially designed sleeping bags can be good for little ones who tend to wriggle out of their blankets.
Nutrition and Exercise
If your child has been active during the day it is more likely that they will be ready for a good night’s sleep. Consider introducing them to a sport or spending more time in nature together if their activity level needs a boost. Another benefit of more time outside could be exposure to natural light. This helps to set our circadian rhythms, our body’s natural mechanism to prepare for expected changes such as sleeping and waking.
If your child has sugary snacks or other stimulants, such as fizzy drinks containing caffeine, having them earlier in the day could help create calmer evenings. I had a housemate once who thought this was a good argument for having chocolate for breakfast! In general a healthy, varied diet which is low in processed foods is good for regulating glucose levels and therefore good for keeping us calmer throughout the day. Preparation for a good night’s sleep starts the moment we wake up.
Magnesium has been shown to help with sleep. Magnesium rich foods include cashews, almonds – which children can enjoy as a butter spread on toast, beans, pulses and seeds which can be eaten as hummus or dips. Whole grains such as wheat, oats and barley as well as bananas, oily fish and leafy greens also contain magnesium.
Find a way to bring the day to a gentle close for your child. You can try gradually tapering off light in the winter months by switching from overhead lights to lamps as you move towards bedtime. I would recommend avoiding the blue light from screens in the two hours before bed by using an orange filter – you can download these or simply select them in settings on most devices.
Our bodies naturally prepare for sleep at the same time each night so keeping bedtime consistent can be a big help, especially if you can catch the moment when your child naturally becomes sleepy to tuck them in for the night.
Create a routine which your child enjoys and which helps them to feel relaxed, this might include things like a bath, reading a story, brushing teeth, talking about their day – these should be done in the same order each evening. Older children and teenagers might enjoy being creative around their evening routine, my son finds chess and audiobooks help him to feel relaxed, he also likes to have a bowl of cereal before bed to avoid waking up hungry.
Anxiety can be a cause of sleeplessness for some children. If your child is old enough you could explore with them whether this is the cause. There could be something specific going on for them, such as bullying at school. If so, scheduling a special time each day where you sit together with a warm drink and a snack so they can talk about their worries could help. If your child is younger or struggles to talk about feelings you may need to look for subtle signs or clues that they are feeling anxious such as an increase in angry outbursts or struggles around separation. Behaviour changes, including those associated with sleep, can also be the result of entering a new developmental phase.
Supporting ourselves as parents to feel calm and relaxed more of the time can also help our children to feel less anxious. Again thanks to our ancestor’s need for survival, we are primed to pick up subtle cues from those around us. If we are prone to anxiety our children might pick this up unconsciously as a sign of danger. You can find more suggestions in this blog post I have written about anxiety.
NHS recommendations for sleep requirements at different ages:
- Four to 12 months need 14 to 15 hours
- Ages 1 to 3 need 12 to 14 hours
- Ages 3 to 6 need 10 to 12 hours
- Ages 7 to 12 need 10 to 11 hours
- Ages 12 to 18 need eight to nine hours
- 18-years and older need six to eight hours
If you would like more support with sleep or any other issue click here to book a free conversation with me. I am more than happy to help.