It’s easy to let your kids stay up late in the summer, but is it worth it for the bad habits to come? Georgina Blaskey finds out
While we love the long days this time of year, it can play havoc with children’s body clocks. When they’re babies, we’re obsessed with their sleep times and how much shut-eye they’re getting. But as they grow up this can change for all kinds of reasons – it’s such a joy to see them running around in the garden in their pyjamas until dusk, or staying up late to see a working parent, not to mention sleepovers with friends or overnight visits with grandparents. But if those late nights become too regular, the knock-on effect can be hugely detrimental.
Hospital attendances in England for children under 14 with sleep disorders have tripled in 10 years, according to NHS data. Ten times more prescriptions of common sleep medication melatonin have also been written for children and adults under 55 over the same period. According to a BBC report, poor sleep in children has been linked to a greater risk of obesity – it is thought to upset the balance of the hormones that tell our brains we are full or hungry, making it harder to control appetite; on top of that, when we’re tired, we are more likely to crave foods high in sugar and fat. Sleep deprivation can also lower immunity and is even linked to mental health issues. It can also be responsible for lack of emotional control and poor performance at school. So how much is enough? And how can we promote healthy sleeping habits?
“Children need sleep to rest and repair, to aid growth, and to form and consolidate memory,” says Jackie Cox, counsellor and psychologist. “The best way to guarantee good sleeping habits is to introduce a steady bedtime routine. This will enable your child to relax, fall asleep on their own and sleep through the night.” It will also equip them to go back to sleep unaided if they wake in the night – saving you from a broken night, too. Jackie suggests children avoid any kind of screen – TV or device – at least an hour before bed; instead encourage a calm activity, such as reading or listening to an audio book. Tablets, DVDs and TVs all emit blue light, which fools the brain into thinking it is still daylight, so the sleep hormone melatonin is not released. Households where both parents work can be busier in the evenings, pushing bedtimes later, and diet can also be to blame – drinks high in sugar and caffeine can make it harder for children to switch off at night.
Some of the common sleep problems children experience include nightmares, sleep terrors and sleep walking, snoring and sleep apnoea. According to Jackie, “Nightmares can occur at times of transition, stress or change. They usually happen later in the night and are remembered the next day.” Jackie advises that rather than talking about the nightmare that night, it’s better to have a drink, pop to the toilet and settle back down to bed. Discussing the nightmare is best done the next day. “Sleep terrors and sleep walking usually occur in the early part of the night. The child is both asleep and awake at the same time and often has no memory of the event the next day. Waking the child is not helpful as it prolongs the event,” says Jackie. “Be sure to keep your child’s room and your house safe.” Snoring, while usually seen as an adult affliction, may be caused by nasal congestion or enlarged adenoids or tonsils. It can also be a sign of sleep apnoea, which is a serious condition when children stop breathing during sleep. “Children with sleep apnoea may snore loudly, experience restless sleep and be sleepy during the day. It is vital to visit your GP about this.”
The Children’s Sleep Charity has highlighted how sleep deprivation can affect children in different ways. CEO Vicki Dawson says: “One of the most surprising symptoms can be hyperactivity, which often leads parents to think their child isn’t tired. You may notice physical signs of sleep deprivation, such as yawning or looking tired; children can become pale and have dark circles under their eyes.” Over time their immune systems can be lowered as a result of sleep deprivation, which means they may be more susceptible to picking up colds and bugs. Interestingly, daytime behaviour can be affected too, Vicki notes. “In school, children may find it more difficult to concentrate, becoming easily distracted. Memory can be affected and behaviour can also decline – they may be more irritable and tearful than usual.”
If your child isn’t managing to sleep well at night, you can let them have a short nap in the day to catch up, and do let them sleep in later at weekends if they can. But for any family with sleep issues, look first at your bedtime routine, how stimulated the children are before bed and how things can be calmed down. In our house, we used a mindfulness CD which is now available online (shambhala.com/sittingstilllikeafrog). The only problem was when I woke up an hour later on the bedroom floor!
A good bedtime routine
1. Have a light snack
2. Take a bath
3. Put on pyjamas
4. Brush teeth
5. Read a story
6. Make sure the room is quiet and at a comfortable temperature
The best bedtime
It goes without saying that different children will need different amounts of sleep, but if you’d like tighter guidelines, here are some you may find useful for a child waking at about 7am each day. If they wake up earlier or later than 7am, you will need to adjust their bedtime accordingly to ensure they are getting enough sleep.
Age 2 – 6.30pm – 7pm
Age 3 – 7pm
Age 4 – 7pm
Age 5 – 7.30pm
Age 6 – 8.00pm
Age 7 – 8.15pm
Age 8 – 8.30pm
Age 9 – 8.45pm
Age 10 – 9.00pm
Age 11 – 9.15pm
Age 12 – 9.15pm