Every animal, including humans, needs to sleep. Sleep is characterized by reduced or absent consciousness, relatively suspended sensory activity, and inactivity of nearly all voluntary muscles. The precise purposes and mechanisms of sleep are only partially clear and the subject of ongoing research. We do know that sleep promotes the growth, healing and rejuvenation of the immune, nervous, skeletal and muscular systems. Sleep helps conserve energy as our metabolism decreases by about 5–10% at night. You may find it interesting for example that rats, which have a high metabolic rate, sleep for up to 14 hours a day, while elephants and giraffes, which have lower metabolic rates, sleep only 3–4 hours per day. There is also some variation of the need for sleep among humans, but in general, children need more sleep per day in order to develop and function properly: up to 18 hours for newborn babies, with a declining rate as a child ages. By the age of two, most children have spent more time asleep than awake and overall. Sleep is especially important for children as it directly impacts mental and physical development, school performance, socialization, and lack of sleep has been associated with obesity.
There is evidence that children are sleeping less in Western societies than they were 30 years ago. This is not good news. Learning to value sleep is a life skill and parents need to help their children develop a healthy approach to sleep! Sleep is in fact a priority, not a luxury, and parents can help their children develop these essential skills by being consistent and creating positive bedtime routines. Avoid caffeine and sugar near bed times, turn off the TV and other computer screens, dim the lights about an hour before bedtime, and encourage quiet activities and gentle play. Bedrooms should be cool, quiet and dark. TVs and phones should not be in children’s bedrooms at night.
Here are some tips by age from the National Sleep Foundation
Sleep and Newborns (1-2 months)
Newborns express their need to sleep in different ways. Some fuss, cry, rub their eyes or indicate this need with individual gestures. It is best to put babies to bed when they are sleepy, but not asleep. They are more likely to fall asleep quickly and eventually learn how to get themselves to sleep. Newborns can be encouraged to sleep less during the day by exposing them to light and noise, and by playing more with them in the daytime. As evening approaches, the environment can be quieter and dimmer with less activity.
Sleep Tips for Newborns
- Observe baby’s sleep patterns and identify signs of sleepiness
- Put baby in the crib when drowsy, not asleep
- Place baby to sleep on her back with face and head clear of blankets
Sleep and Infants (3-11 months)
By six months of age, many infants sleep through the night. Infants typically sleep 9-12 hours during the night and take 30 minute to two-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
- Develop regular daytime and bedtime schedules.
- Create a consistent and enjoyable bedtime routine
- Establish a regular “sleep friendly” environment
- Encourage baby to fall asleep independently and to become a “self-soother”
Sleep and Toddlers (1-3 years)
Toddlers need about 12-14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. When they reach about 18 months of age their naptimes will decrease to once a day lasting about one to three hours. Naps should not occur too close to bedtime as they may delay sleep at night. Many toddlers experience sleep problems including resisting going to bed and nighttime awakenings. Nighttime fears and nightmares are also common. Daytime sleepiness and behavior problems may signal poor sleep or a sleep problem.
Sleep Tips For Toddlers:
- Maintain a daily sleep schedule and consistent bedtime routine
- Make the bedroom environment the same every night and throughout the night
- Set limits that are consistent, communicated and enforced
- Encourage use of a security object such as a blanket or stuffed animal
Sleep and Preschoolers (3-5 years)
Preschoolers typically sleep 11-13 hours each night and most do not nap after five years of age. As with toddlers, difficulty falling asleep and waking up during the night are common. Preschoolers commonly experience nighttime fears and nightmares. In addition, sleepwalking and sleep terrors peak during preschool years.
Sleep Tips for Preschoolers
- Maintain a regular and consistent sleep schedule
- Have a relaxing bedtime routine that ends in the room where the child sleeps
- Child should sleep in the same sleeping environment every night, in a room that is cool, quiet and dark – and without a TV
Sleep and School-aged Children (5-12 years)
Children aged five to 12 need 10-11 hours of sleep. Increasing demands from school, sports and other social activities as well as TV, computers and caffeinated drinks all can lead to difficulty falling asleep, nightmares and disruptions to their sleep. Watching TV close to bedtime has been associated with bedtime resistance, difficulty falling asleep, anxiety around sleep and sleeping fewer hours. Poor or inadequate sleep can lead to mood swings, behavioral problems such as hyperactivity and cognitive problems that impact on their ability to learn in school.
Sleep Tips for School-aged Children
- Teach school-aged children about healthy sleep habits
- Emphasize need for regular and consistent sleep schedule and bedtime routine
- Make child’s bedroom conducive to sleep – dark, cool and quiet
- Keep TV and computers out of the bedroom
- Avoid caffeine