Sleep is an important physiological process that we all require. But, the significance of sleep is sometimes overlooked. Getting a sufficient amount of hours of sleep not only allows the body to rest, but keeps the immune system strong and improves brain functions, such as mood and memory. Sleep-related difficulties are a growing public health concern, and the effect is most prominent in children and adolescents.
Healthy sleep habits in children are crucial as sleep plays an important role in physical and mental development. Numerous studies have shown sleep disorders linked to a variety of cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and physical health problems. Children’s individual sleep habits change during childhood and adolescence. With increasing age, bedtimes tend to become later and sleep durations tend to reduce. In younger children, there is sometimes bedtime resistance and difficulty sleeping through the night. In adolescence, there's sometimes more difficulty falling asleep and daytime sleepiness.
The pineal gland (located in the brain) naturally produces the hormone melatonin in response to darkness. This hormone helps with the timing of our circadian rhythms and promotes sleepiness. When people have a hard time falling asleep, they might take an over-the-counter melatonin supplement. However, parents should speak with the pediatrician before giving melatonin to children and adolescents. Melatonin is not recommended for kids younger than 5. In fact, most sleep difficulties can be managed with a change in schedules, habits, or behaviors. If these changes do not help, contact our office and our providers can guide you on what to do next.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine provides helpful guidelines regarding how much sleep children need at different stages in their development. The following are the recommended hours of quality sleep for each age group during a 24-hour period:
• Ages 4-12 months: 12-16 hours (including naps)
• Ages 1-2 years: 11-14 hours (including naps)
• Ages 3-5 years: 10-13 hours (including naps)
• Age 6-12 years: 9-12 hours
• Age 13-18 years: 8-10 hours
There are two phases in our sleep cycle, non-REM and REM (rapid eye movement). Babies spend more time in the REM phase with their sleep cycles being shorter than adults. The time spent in the REM phase tends to decrease while the sleep cycles get longer during adolescence. The first two stages are light sleep, during which time your child can easily wake up. The third stage is deep sleep. This is when the body repairs tissues, builds bone and muscle, and strengthens the immune system. Night terrors, sleepwalking, and bed-wetting can happen during this stage. The final stage is the REM phase, when the brain becomes more active and vivid dreaming may occur. REM sleep is important because it is thought to promote learning and memory stimulation.
Children and teens who aren’t getting enough sleep may experience the following:
• insomnia (trouble falling/staying asleep), fatigue, and falling asleep during the day
• having trouble paying attention or struggling with school work
• irritability or behavioral problems
Helping children sleep is essential in the early years. Encourage your kids to stick to a regular bedtime every night to get into a healthy routine. Reading a bedtime story and tucking in your child with a safe toy can help them fall asleep better. In the teenage years, listening to quiet music or reading a book for 10 minutes can be helpful. Keep in mind that exposure to screens like smartphones, computers, or tablets should be avoided one hour before bedtime. These devices contain blue short-wavelength light that could result in melatonin suppression, make it harder to fall asleep, and disrupt sleep. Let your kids know to put these devices away close to bedtime.
If your child is experiencing ongoing sleep disruptions or trouble falling asleep, contact our office. Other health conditions and mental health issues can impact sleep. Our pediatricians can provide support for your family and advise you on best courses of action.