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Not getting enough Z’s due to your kid’s troubles with sleeping at night? Read on for all you need to know about the science of sleep, bed-time tips, encouraging good sleeping habits and sleeping disorders!

Whether it’s getting your kids to bed at a reasonable hour, or hoping that they will sleep through the night without crying or crawling into your bed, the reality is that bedtime is often a nightmare for parents. Problems with sleeping may be due to numerous reasons and are best managed if they are identified early and handled appropriately. Here’s how you can monitor if your child is getting enough sleep, with tips on what you can do to establish a good bedtime routine and catch those much needed 40 winks at night.

What is sleep?
There is still much research to be done on the need for sleep and how it works, but it has been proven to be as crucial to our health as eating. Sleep has two distinct phases: REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep. The first is the sleep of dreams, while the second, non-REM sleep, consists of 4 phases, each deeper than the cycle before, and is the sleep which allows the body to re-charge.

In adults, periods of REM sleep occur every 90 minutes, while in children this occurs about every 60 minutes. All of us dream every time we sleep, although we may not be able to remember our dreams.

Sleep affects mood, the immune system and the ability to learn new skills, where the consequences can be serious when deprivation sets in. It is therefore necessary to monitor your child’s sleep patterns and identify any potential problems that may be causing stress, before other bigger problems – such as poor marital relations, improper judgements and various unhealthy habits – begin to impact negatively on the whole family.

Did you know? Anything less than 5 minutes to fall asleep at night means you’re sleep deprived. The ideal is between 10 and 15 minutes, meaning you’re still tired enough to sleep deeply, but not so exhausted that you feel sleepy by day.

Getting enough sleep
School-aged children need somewhere between 9 and 12 hours of sleep at night. At this age, kids usually start a trend toward becoming more and more sleep deprived, where as the parents, you will need to help figure out how much sleep your child needs.

Your children are getting the right amount of sleep if they:

  • Can fall asleep within 15 to 30 minutes.
  • Can wake up easily at the time they need to get up and don’t need you to keep bugging them to get up.
  • Are awake and alert and don’t need a nap during the day.

Interestingly, teenagers need as much sleep as small children (about 10 hrs) while those over 65 require the least of all (about 6 hours). For the average adult aged 25-55, 8 hours is considered optimal.

Types of sleep problems

  • Many childhood sleep problems are related to poor sleep habits or to anxiety about going to bed and falling asleep. Persistent sleep problems may also be symptoms of emotional difficulties such as separation anxiety, which is a developmental landmark in young children. Bedtime can also be associated with negative or strange experiences that can be very scary for a child in the event of nightmares, sleep terrors and sleep walking.
  • Nightmares are relatively common during childhood. The child often remembers these ‘bad dreams’, which usually involve major threats to the child’s well-being. Nightmares, which begin at a variety of ages, affect girls more often than boys. For some children nightmares are serious, frequent, and interfere with restful sleep.
  • Sleep terrors (night terrors), sleepwalking, and sleep talking constitute a relatively rare group of sleep disorders, called ‘parasomnias’, which tend to affect children between the ages of 4 and 12. Sleep terrors are different from nightmares, where the child will scream uncontrollably and appear to be awake, but is confused and can’t communicate.
  • Children who sleepwalk may appear to be awake as they move around, but are actually asleep and in danger of hurting themselves. Both sleep terrors and sleepwalking run in families and affect boys more often than girls. Most often, children with these sleep disorders have single or occasional episodes of the disorder. However, if episodes occur several times a night or for weeks at a time, treatment by a child psychiatrist may be necessary.

Other sleep disorders:

  1. Sleep Apnoea is a serious disorder in which there are pauses in breathing during sleep. Children with sleep apnoea may snore loudly, experience restless sleep and be sleepy during the day. Enlarged tonsils or adenoids, allergies, weight problems and other medical problems may contribute to the problem. Fortunately there are ways to treat apnoea, so it is important to see your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment.
  2. Narcolepsy is often first noticed in puberty, but may occur from the age of 10. Children with narcolepsy experience excessive daytime sleepiness and uncontrollable ‘sleep attacks’, even when they get enough sleep. This disorder, as with the others, should be diagnosed by a doctor and treated accordingly.

Bedtime tips
While there is no doubt that sleep disorders need medical attention, most of the time less serious sleep problems can be overcome by making simple adjustments to your lifestyle and setting a few bedtime rules. Here are some guidelines:

  • Start a routine: Initiate a nightly routine that signals that it’s almost time for bed and follow this ritual at roughly the same time every night. This may include brushing teeth, taking a warm bath, putting on PJs and story time.
  • Set the scene: Create a quiet, comfortable bedroom without distractions, such as a TV.
  • Track caffeine: Watch out for hidden sources of caffeine in your child’s diet, such as chocolate, tea, or cold drinks and coffee-flavored desserts. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 26% of children 3 and older drink at least one caffeinated beverage a day and consequently lose 30 minutes of sleep nightly.
  • Encourage play and exercise: Make sure your kids have interesting and varied activities during the day, including physical activity and fresh air.
  • Watch the medications: Ask your doctor or pediatrician about anything in your child’s medications that might encourage alertness, including over-the-counter drugs for colds and flu.
  • Put them down drowsy: Leave when your kids are on the cusp of sleep but haven’t yet surrendered to it. If you are there the moment they fall asleep, they will have a difficult time going back to sleep on their own if they awaken in the middle of the night.
  • Use light to your advantage: Keep lights dim in the evening as bedtime approaches. In the morning, get your child into bright light, and, if possible, take them outside. Light helps signal the brain into the right sleep-wake cycle.

In Conclusion
Your child’s ‘sleep’, both in terms of quality and quantity, is not only important as far as individual well-being is concerned, but has a significant impact on the health and happiness of the whole family. Sleep problems may be more serious than you may think at first and if trouble persists for longer than a period of weeks you should seek the advice of a pediatrician, who will be able to pick up if your child has a sleep disorder that may need to be treated medically. Usually as children mature they get over common sleep problems and there is much that you can do to improve the situation at bedtime by understanding your child’s needs. It may initially seem like a real challenge, but the end result in making sure that everyone gets a good night’s rest will be of great value.

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