As educators, we have long known that children who do not get enough sleep struggle when they get to school. In my experience, this seems to be an increasing issue for more students in recent years. As a counselor, I’ve been specifically concerned with the impact on how well children can regulate emotions during the school day, let alone learn new things, get along with others, or in some cases, merely stay awake.
With this in mind, I am excited to share a guest post written especially for the Emotional Wellness Project by the experts at the Sleep Help Institute. Take a look at the research and their tips for helping children get a good night’s sleep.
Tips for Helping Children Sleep
1. Keep a Consistent Bedtime
2. Follow a Bedtime Routine
3. Avoid Screens
4. Calm Things Down in the Evening
The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on a Child's Mental and Emotional Well-Being
By the Sleep Help Institute
Many children have a hard time managing their emotions for an entire school day. When they are sleep deprived, their mental and emotional well-being diminishes, making outbursts and other behavior problems more likely. Depending on their age, kids need anywhere from 8 to 12 hours of sleep to be fully rested. But many children come to school with far less, and it can impact their academic and social success.
Anytime a child gets even one hour less than the recommended amount of sleep they enter a state of sleep deprivation. In that state, their brains and bodies start to change how they function.
Sleep and Emotional Regulation
A study published in Pediatrics explored the effects of sleep extension on child behavior. None of the participants had any underlying medical conditions including sleep or behavioral disorders. The children ranged in age from 7-11 and, after extending their sleep time by an average of 27 minutes, the children showed significant improvements to their alertness and emotional regulation. The study also found that after reducing sleep by 54 minutes, the children had an increase in sleepiness and impulsive behavior.
During sleep deprivation, the emotional center of the brain, called the amygdala, becomes more sensitive to negative stimuli. As the amygdala sensitizes, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for concentration and higher reasoning, becomes less active. Consequently, children (and adults) become far more susceptible to negative thoughts, experiences, and emotions. In general, children are even more susceptible because their brains and bodies are still developing.
Promote Current and Future Mental Health
A child’s current emotional well-being can have an enduring influence on their later life. A study conducted at the Sleep and Anxiety Center of Houston found that sleep deprivation not only caused more negative emotions but also caused children to get less pleasure from positive experiences. The lack of positive experiences can carry over into their future social interactions.
An article published in Sleep Medicine Reviews suggested that without enough sleep, people are less likely to participate in activities that require more effort. The potential for the social and emotional isolation that leads to anxiety and depression increases.
Childhood Sleep Problems
Childhood sleep problems are not uncommon. Rather than having adult disorders like sleep apnea and narcolepsy, children are more likely to experience night terrors, sleepwalking, and bedwetting. Most of these issues are outgrown because they stem from an immature nervous system. However, they can trigger other issues like anxiety that seep over into other parts of life and interfere with developing a healthy sleep pattern.
If a child has a sleep problem that could be related a sleep disorder, you may want to consult a physician to see if there are any treatments, behavior modifications, or medications that could help.
How to Help Children Sleep
Good sleep habits developed in childhood can contribute to long-term health. High-quality sleep starts in a bedroom devoted to sleep. A child’s mattress should be comfortable and supportive. If your child is using an old mattress, it could have lumps or valleys that disrupt his sleep during the night. The days of trudging through a mattress store are over as most mattresses can now be ordered online and delivered to your front door. Beyond the mattress, the room should be cool, dark, and quiet to give your child’s brain and body a chance to relax and calm down for the day.
Behaviors and habits throughout the day can also make a big difference in the quality of a child’s sleep. You can help develop healthy sleep habits by:
- Keeping a Consistent Bedtime: For kids, consistency is key. The human body loves routine as it controls the sleep-wake cycle using 24-hour biological and physiological cycles called circadian rhythms to time the release of sleep hormones. Try to keep the same bedtime on the weekends so your child isn’t fighting sleep debt on Monday morning.
- Following Bedtime Routine: A regular nightly pattern can make the biggest difference for many children. Routines help their brains recognize when to start the release of hormones that make them feel sleepy. They also allow children to release stress. A warm bath, bedtime story, quiet rocking or singing can all be good ways to help a child calm down for the night.
- Avoiding Screens: The bright blue light from televisions, laptops, and smartphones suppresses the release of sleep hormones. Some devices have low blue light settings to counteract this problem, but for most, you’ll have to shut the screens off at least two to three hours before bed.
- Calming Things Down in the Evening: Full schedules can make evenings hectic for many families. As much as you can, try to calm things down in the evening starting about an hour before bedtime.