The summer holidays often mean a break from set routines, with late nights and laid-back mornings as well as irregular meals (please read our article on healthy eating habits for children for more information). Going back to school is the perfect opportunity to find a sleep pattern that meets the needs of your child.
Why is sleep so important for children?
Sleep is crucial for everyone but especially for children. Encouraging healthy sleep habits for your child also helps them to grow and develop by settling into a rest cycle. This is even more important during slight changes in their pattern, as is the case when going back to school and having set times to get up in the morning.
Every child has their own sleep pattern, which is made up of different cycles and stages of sleep. Restorative sleep, when the body rests, releases hormones and repairs and grows tissue, happens at the start of the night while ‘dreaming’ or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when the brain has intense mental activity, happens at the end of the night. Respecting this pattern is essential as it has a direct impact on your child’s quality of sleep and performance the following day.
Just like adults, some children need more sleep, some need less. However, there are some guidelines based on age. Children aged three to four years old generally need a total of 12 to 13 hours of sleep per day. At six years of age, your child should be sleeping for a total of 11 hours to feel well rested. Sleeping hours then gradually start to reduce to reach a total of eight to nine hours at around the age of 16. As a general rule of thumb, there is usually a difference of two hours between each age group.
How can you establish healthy sleep habits for your child?
Even if the time your child goes to bed affects the total number of hours of sleep, it is really important to respect their pattern and create the best possible conditions for a great night’s sleep. Prepare your child for ‘night mode’ by planning physical activity at the start of the afternoon. They can then spend the rest of the day slowly winding down.
Bedtime should be a calm experience, so that your child has the opportunity to slow down and experience signs of tiredness. Avoid any over-stimulating activities, including video games and electronic media devices in general. Instead, use this time as a way to strengthen the bond between you and your child.
Never give your child sleeping pills, even if they are not sleeping well or do not want to go to bed! Medication does not cure ‘insomnia’ or sleeping problems. It can have a negative impact on processes that slowly start to develop in your child’s growing body to balance sleep. As a result, sleeping pills can reduce your child’s quality of sleep and even cause agitation.
Waking your child up as late as possible before school or letting them go to bed later than normal at the weekend will not help either. Sleep cannot be carried over. Each restorative sleep cycle and dreaming sleep cycle is very important and the duration of these cycles is different at the start and end of the night. As a result, letting your child have a lie-in in the morning does not help them to catch up on lost sleep.
So once again, respecting your child’s sleep pattern is key!
Do you need help with your child’s sleep problems?
Please contact your child’s paediatrician first, who will assess the situation and be able to provide the most appropriate advice on steps to take to help your child achieve all-important restorative sleep. The paediatric unit at Hôpital de La Tour is always available to answer any questions or concerns you may have.
Dr Alexandra Tsouka, Paediatrician, Member of the Swiss Medical Association (FMH)