Moms and dads know that an overtired baby means a cranky baby—and probably another rough night ahead. As kids get older, most are better able to deal with missed ZZZs now and then, but sleep is still hugely important to their health. Find out all the ways not getting enough sleep can impact children, and jumpstart better sleep habits with our tips.
While we sleep, our bodies and brains work hard to repair tissues and cells, store memories and information gained from the day and strengthen the immune system. (Ever notice how a child who isn’t getting enough sleep often turns into a sick child?)
"Kids who get enough sleep typically do better in school, are less likely to become obese and can better handle their emotions," says Kathleen Hill, a licensed therapist with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life. On the flip side, kids who are not getting enough sleep are more irritable and have a harder time concentrating. “We hear from teachers all the time that overtired kids are unable to focus in school,” she says.
Research shows that behavioral problems that result from not getting enough sleep—such as the inability to concentrate—can be so significant that they mimic the signs of ADHD. But once sleep issues are resolved, the symptoms disappear.
One of the biggest drains on sleep is the screens that stimulate our brains in the evening when we should be winding down. For kids, who are still developing impulse control, it’s hard to disconnect from phones and computers. But you can make it easier for them.
“Keeping devices out of the bedroom—especially internet-enabled devices—is my number one piece of advice to parents,” says Hill. She recommends stepping away from screens at least one hour before bedtime to allow the brain to relax and prepare for sleep.”
If your teenager is pushing back, begging to play Fortnite or get on social media in the evening, you might think of alternatives to offer, such as reading, listening to music or playing a board game. Don’t hesitate to stand firm (more on that later).
Many kids are scheduled to the max, with an activity every evening plus plenty of homework. Throw in dinner and a shower, and bedtime inevitably gets pushed back. It’s worth considering how important some activities are to your family. More “white space” on the family calendar makes it easier for everyone to get the rest they need.
The same can be said for babies and toddlers, who don’t get the same quality of sleep when they’re on the go as they do in their cribs at home. Don’t feel guilty about saying no to an activity to make sure you’re home for naps and bedtime. At the same time, routines fall apart sometimes, and that’s OK.
A regular bedtime routine is not only comforting to a child, it signals the brain to power down, says Jody Baumstein, a licensed therapist for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life. Plus, it’s “a chance for parents and kids to connect by talking, reading or snuggling together,” she says.
A child’s bedtime routine might involve bathing, brushing teeth, reading (actual books, not e-readers) and doing calming activities (listening to soothing music, deep breathing exercises). Little ones may enjoy singing songs, while older kids might play the “high/low game,” sharing the best and worst parts of their day.
The exact details of your routine are flexible, but knowing how much sleep your child needs and then keeping to a consistent schedule helps her to be her best self. (We have ideas for your newborn/baby, toddler and school-aged child.)
Here’s something to remind yourself when your preschooler is crying to sleep with you, or your teenager says you’re ruining her life because she can’t take her phone to bed: kids actually crave limits. When they test boundaries, they’re testing that they’re safe and secure. So stand firm.
When kids are small, this might look like keeping to 2 stories and 1 song at bedtime (even as they plead for more). As kids get older, it might involve plugging phones into a family charging station 1 hour before bedtime—no exceptions. They may just need to use an “old-school” alarm clock.
There’s a lot of information out there about teaching your baby to self-soothe, but what if you have an older child who struggles? Young children are looking to their parents to help shape their behavior.
If your child often gets up to make requests or climbs into your bed at night, consider starting a behavior chart or a pass system to help reinforce the behavior you want. For example:
- If your child stays in her own bed for 3 nights in a row, she can earn an extra bedtime story the next night.
- Offer a limited number of “bedtime passes” that can be used for bathroom trips or water refills. When the passes have been used, they’re gone until the next night. (Of course, if your child has a genuine need or is potty training, don’t ignore it.)
“Consistency is key here,” says Hill. “It’s tough at 2 a.m. when your child gets into bed with you, but if you want it to stop, you have to get up and return her to her room every time. If you allow her to stay sometimes, she will keep testing the waters.”