It’s normal for children’s sleep schedules to flex over the summer, with longer days and less need for early morning starts. But as the summer ends and school and daycare schedules resume, it’s important to shift back to a healthy sleep routine.
Children need more sleep than adults — how much more depends on their age. Preschoolers need about 10 hours of sleep a night, plus a daytime nap when they are younger. Infants and toddlers need more, and school-age children and adolescents a little less. If children stay up too late on school nights, they will suffer when their sleep is cut short in the morning.
Why children’s sleep schedules matter
“Sleep affects every aspect of a child’s well-being,” explains Jodi Mindell, PhD, Associate Director of the Sleep Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). She details the key ways in which sleep shortages are harmful to children.
Children who don’t get enough sleep are cranky and irritable. They have less control of their emotions. What parents take for adolescent moodiness is often due to lack of sleep, and can disappear with healthier sleep habits.
Young children with sleep shortages can be overactive and disobedient. Or they can become withdrawn and depressed. Sleep-deprived teens are more likely to engage in risky behaviors.
Children’s attention, concentration, memory, problem-solving and decision-making skills all drop with lack of sufficient sleep. “A child’s primary job is to do well in school,” says Mindell. As parents, we set them back if we don’t hold them to healthy sleep schedules.
Studies show an association between insufficient sleep and obesity. Poor sleep is also linked with the likelihood of developing diabetes and, over a longer term, with heart problems.
Injury from accidents
The effect of sleep on concentration and decision-making also ties lack of sleep with higher rates of injury from accidents. For young children, a key risk window is the walk to and from school or the school bus, especially crossing roads and getting on and off the bus. Children who have not had enough sleep do not do as well in making decisions about when to cross the street safely.
For teenage drivers, there’s a different danger: a very high risk of accidents due to drowsy driving. As new drivers, adolescents are already more prone to error. Add sleepiness to the equation and the danger rises. Statistics show the greatest frequency of teen driving accidents are in the afternoon, after school lets out, and late at night. And those rates go down in school districts with later start times that encourage heathy sleep.
When children are cranky and badly behaved due to lack of sleep, parents tend to get irritable, too. The result is often an increase in arguments and battles of will. Healthy sleep for everyone in the family can bring down the emotional temperature at home so life is more comfortable and relationships improve.
How to bring children’s sleep schedules into a healthy routine
“Parents can’t rely on children to adopt a healthy sleep routine,” says Mindell. “They need to provide the conditions to make that happen."
- Make sleep a priority.
- Create a bedroom environment that is conducive to sleep. It should be cool, dark and quiet, with no electronics. “The electronics should go to bed themselves,” says Mindell.
- Establish and follow a bedtime routine, for young children and for teenagers. That involves a wind-down period with quiet, calming activities, like a bath or reading. Then a clear time when the lights go out.
- Avoid caffeine. Sodas are an obvious source, but teenagers can develop a habit of drinking iced tea in the summer. Cut out all caffeine for your children in the afternoon and evening.