Researchers report that sleep deprivation is impacting not only adults and adolescents but also children from infancy through elementary school. At three-and-a-half years of age, a child needs somewhere between eleven and fourteen hours daily. We know that few family’s schedules allow for a 7:00 p.m. bedtime followed by the 7:00 a.m. wake-up of a well-rested child. Rather it is more common for children to get between nine and ten hours of sleep a night, making up for the other two to three hours during the day. If that time is not made up for and the child misses two hours of sleep a night, that amounts to one sleepless night a week. Imagine the exhaustion you would feel if you missed a night’s sleep on a weekly basis?
Unfortunately, drowsiness in young children often shows up as hyperactivity and difficult behavior which compounds the problem by diverting parents’ attention from the sleep issue. A Colorado sleep institute observed that toddlers who miss a nap show more anxiety, less joy and poorer problem-solving skills. In other words, as most parents can attest, tired children tend to be cranky, and ironically, they often resist the medicine they need.
However, something can be done. St. Luke’s Hospital Sleep Research Center put it succinctly: “The increase in evening activities combined with a child’s resistance to going to bed place a significant emphasis on the parent’s ability to be firm, consistent and organized about bedtimes and the importance of sleep.” To create a healthy sleep schedule it boils down to making a decision, getting organized and following through. These are the same skills required to succeed in any given task but often parents have trouble with bedtime, largely due to fallacies about sleep.
It’s not true that if children stay up later at night or skip a nap, they will sleep better at night. Nor is the idea that riding in a car makes a child sleepy. A well-rested child will not fall asleep when sedentary. Also, if an infant or toddler wakes up at night, it is not an indication that the child needs more attention during the day. All infants wake up periodically and if the behavior is not reinforced with attention, the child will outgrow it. Basically, children can learn to fall asleep and then when they wake up, go back to sleep on their own.
A well-rested child is a happy child. Just like adequate exercise and proper nutrition, we know that the young child needs sleep in order to be healthy. When parents decide to meet the children’s needs for sleep, they then organize the evening dinner, bath and bedtime rituals, and follow through consistently. If a well rested child is less cranky and overall healthier, isn’t it worth the effort?
Judith Frizlen is founder and director of Rose Garden Early Childhood Center in Buffalo, New York, a LifeWays Representative Center.