Young girl sleeping in bed It's summer during the COVID-19 pandemic and your child wants to stay up late, get up late and lay on the couch all day eating snacks and playing video games. While it's normal for children's sleep schedules to flex over the summer, it's more important than ever to ensure your child is getting the sleep they need at night.

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, while school-age children and adolescents need a little less. If children stay up too late during the summer – changing their entire sleep cycle – they will suffer when they need to return to getting up early in the morning when school is back in session (albeit that may be remotely).

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.

Mood

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. This is even more evident now, when many children and teens are worried about COVID-19, racial protests, community unrest and when they will be able to see all their friends again in-person.

Behavior

Young children with sleep shortages can be overactive and disobedient. They can become withdrawn and depressed. Sleep-deprived teens are more likely to engage in risky behaviors – which may especially be a concern after months of stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19.

Cognitive ability

Children’s attention, concentration, memory, problem-solving and decision-making skills all decrease with lack of sufficient sleep. “A child’s primary job is to do well in school and continue learning,” says Mindell. Even in summertime, children are learning every day, just in a different way than during the school year. As parents, we do them a disservice if we don’t hold them to healthy sleep schedules. For teens, a lack of sleep can have a profound effect on their decision-making skills and willingness to participate in unsafe activities.

Health

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. Studies in adults find an association between sleep and immune response. We do not know if insufficient sleep is associated with an increased risk of COVID-19, but it doesn’t hurt to get enough sleep just in case.

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 children, a key risk window is crossing roads while walking. 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.

Family functioning

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. During this time of uncertainty in the world around us, and with many families spending much of their time together, managing family sleep schedules is something that can be controlled and will make a positive difference in our everyday lives.

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.
  • stablish and follow a bedtime routine: for both young children and teenagers. That involves a wind-down period with quiet, calming activities, like a bath/shower or reading. Then, make a consistent, clear time when its lights 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 to aid positive sleep habits.
  • Get out into daylight. Light exposure, especially in the morning, helps set the internal body clock and improve sleep at night.
  • Manage worry. If your child/teenager is worrying about the COVID-19 and/or concerns related to racism/social unrest, find time during the day to have discussions, to manage having those thoughts and feelings peaking at bedtime and during the night.

For more resources on sleep and COVID-19, please see the Pediatric Sleep Council's website at https://www.babysleep.com/coronavirus/.

Jodi A. Mindell, PhD, is a psychologist in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Division of Pulmonary Medicine, as well as the associate director of the Sleep Center at CHOP.

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