There are many factors that can affect our sleep. Stress, anxiety, medical conditions, what we eat and drink, our habits and guilty pleasures, room temperature, how and where we sleep. The list goes on. Add in the coronavirus effect on our lives and it adds another level of stress and anxiety that has affected even more people’s sleep this past year.

After Bob Dole lost to President Clinton in 1996, the former Kansas senator would say, “I slept like a baby. Woke up crying every two hours.”

However, this phrase is often misused to mean ‘I slept soundly’. Anyone with a baby will tell you that this is often not true! Whichever way you use this term, what we know to be true is that sleep is vital for our wellbeing. But ensuring we get enough of it, in a peaceful manner can be challenging, particularly in children and young people.

Sleep is directly connected to our mental health and emotional wellbeing. It affects how we cope with the stress and challenges that life can bring and it affects our mood, energy and ability to juggle our everyday lives. In children and young people, this is heightened as their young minds are developing rapidly and therefore sleep is critical to allow them to rest and recover their body and their minds.

Sleep plays a crucial role in the development of young minds. In addition to having a direct effect on happiness, research shows that sleep impacts alertness and attention, cognitive performance, mood, resiliency, vocabulary acquisition, and learning and memory. Sleep also has important effects on growth, especially in early infancy. In toddlers, napping appears to be necessary for memory consolidation, executive attention, and motor skill development (Sleep Foundation).

A study by the University of Warwick in 2020 found depression, anxiety, impulsive behaviour and poor cognitive performance in children to be affected by the amount of sleep they have. Sleep states are active processes that support reorganisation of brain circuitry. This makes sleep especially important for children, whose brains are developing and reorganizing rapidly.

Lack of consistent, quality sleep will begin to take its toll on your child and then start to affect their mental and physical health and their capacity to learn and function easily. Here are some warning signs to look out for if you are concerned about your child’s sleeping patterns:

Finding it difficult to wake up each morning
Falling asleep after being woken up and you have to repeatedly keep waking them up again
Falling asleep or seeming drowsy – particularly at school
Finding it hard to learn new information
Being forgetful
Complaining of feeling tired
Yawning frequently
Blurry vision
Wanting to have a nap or choosing to lie down instead of doing other things
Wanting sugar or other stimulants more often than usual
Increased moodiness or irritability
Seeming more stressed

Some of these behaviours and disruption to sleep can come from over-tiredness or full days. But on a regular basis, they are highlighting a bigger problem leading to a sleep debt. When a child is not getting enough sleep that its mind and body needs to function well, it starts to build up a sleep debt. Over time, this debt will only increase and will be impossible to catch up on leading to a risk of serious impact on the child’s mental and physical wellbeing.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, school-age children need between 9-11 hours of sleep each night. But of course, each child is different and this can vary according to other daily patterns and behaviours. The most important thing is that you create a consistent routine that works best for you and your child’s needs.

Here are some tips that might help you with a bedtime routine:

Create a consistent bedtime routine. Children work best with a set routine. Whether it’s brushing teeth, bath, story and then bed – or another similar combination, create a pattern that suits you. For older children and young people, they may want more of a say in the process but creating some downtime before bedtime is important.
Try to manage a consistent sleep and wake up time. This helps to set the perimeters around sleeping and studies show can aid long term sleep quality.
Consider the bedroom environment – this includes temperature, noise, lights and toys/furniture. All of these factors can affect getting to sleep and disrupting sleep. Lighting should be dim and as much as possible, the bedroom should be a calm, relaxing, quiet place to encourage restful sleep.
Say no to screen time. Try to keep the bedroom a screen-free zone and encourage reading or quiet music instead. Ideally, there should be no screen time at least 1-2 hours before bedtime.
Try not to eat or drink anything before bed. Food needs time to digest so it’s a good idea to avoid any snacks and if possible liquid before bedtime. This should also help limit needing to get up to go to the toilet in the night.
Bath or shower before bed. This can help create the feeling of winding down and transition into bedtime mode. It should help to calm and relax the child or young person.

The benefits of regular, quality sleep in a child will help them have more energy each day. They are more likely to be able to learn and remember new things, concentrate on tasks for longer, be more creative and can create and maintain good relations with others.

If you are concerned about your child’s sleeping behaviour, try to keep a diary and see if there are any patterns or behaviours which might be contributing to their disrupted sleep. Seek medical advice and discuss your concerns and observations.