How to create healthy sleep habits in children
Issues such as frequent waking or a consistently tired child may require medical attention, but often parents just need to keep working on healthy sleep habits.
As many of us know, creating a healthy sleep schedule seems like a battle at times with children. Issues such as frequent waking or a consistently tired child may require medical attention, but often parents just need to keep working on healthy sleep habits.
Parents often ask my opinion on different sleep aids and whether any specific product or medicine may help their children get back into a consistent sleep schedule. But I'm here to tell you that, in most cases, sleep aids are not the answer.
I rarely recommend sleep aids because they are not scientifically proven to work or be safe for children. There are, however, a few cases in which I might suggest a common sleep aid, melatonin, for children. For example, there have been studies to show the benefit of using this specific sleep aid for children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism.
Yet I tend to stay on the safe side, given that melatonin is not FDA-approved and there is no recommended dosage for children. In addition, even though these pills are considered "natural" because melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in our bodies, natural does not always mean safe. Other pediatricians may suggest natural sleeping aids such as lavender, sweet orange, chamomile, and marjoram — but again, these are not FDA-approved, nor is their effectiveness rooted in empirical data.
Rather, I always recommend first that parents work with their children to develop healthy sleep habits. Here are a few tips that can help your kids fall asleep and stay asleep longer:
Know how much sleep your children need. The first step is being aware what your child requires now, and learning how those requirements change as children grow. For example, children 6 to 12 years of age should sleep 8 to 10 hours a night, while it's recommended that teenagers 13 to 18 years old should sleep 9 to 11 hours per night for optimal health. By knowing the requirements, parents can learn if their children are, or are not, getting enough sleep.
Turn off screens. There's no question that children have become addicted to their phones and tablets. In fact, USA Today reported on a Common Sense research survey that found nearly half of children use electronic devices just before bedtime. That statistic is frightening, as studies have shown that the short-wavelength (blue) light found in phones and tablets has a greater effect on phase-shifting the circadian clock and on melatonin suppression, causing delayed and disrupted sleep. Parents should do their part in making sure children power down their screens at least one to two hours before bedtime, with a recommended maximum of 30 minutes of screen time a day (in addition to school use).
Develop a routine. Children should start preparing their bodies and minds for sleep 30 to 60 minutes before their intended bedtime. Parents can help young children start this routine by brushing their teeth and completing other bedtime prep before winding down by reading a book in bed. It is also important parents ensure that their kids are going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day, including on weekends.
Create a sleep-supportive environment. A child's bedroom should be first and foremost where they sleep, rather than a place to play or hang out with friends. Parents should encourage kids to spend free time outside or in shared living spaces, such as a playroom or the family room. It is also important to ensure that the bedroom is dark for sleeping, and that the temperature in the room is comfortable.
Though these healthy sleep habits may vary from child to child, they can certainly help children fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake up feeling rested. If you're child still has trouble sleeping, or is diagnosed with ADHD, autism, or any other neurodevelopmental disorder, it is always recommended that you check with your pediatrician on the use of sleep aids or any other tactics that might help. In some cases, a referral to a pediatric sleep specialist might be needed.
Karen S. Carvalho, M.D., is a pediatric neurologist at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children who is board-certified in sleep medicine.