Back-to-school season ushers in earlier alarms, busier schedules, homework, after-school activities and that old familiar battle: bedtime.
The question is: Should getting our kids to sleep really be a nightly battle? After all, how much shut-eye do they actually need?
We reached out to Brittany N. Middleton, M.D., FAAP, who is medical director of pediatrics at Huntington Hospital, to answer some of our questions.
How important is sleep for kids, tweens and teens?
Sleep is incredibly important for children of all ages (all people, really!). We have a circadian rhythm in which melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep, is released when it is dark and not released when we are exposed to daylight. During sleep, our bodies and minds are in a crucial recovery state. Insufficient and poor-quality sleep can cause problems with mood, behavior, learning, attention and physical health. Irritability, tiredness, hyperactivity and poor school performance may all be signs of poor sleep. Too much sleep has been linked to diabetes, obesity and mental health problems. Parent surveys have shown that sleep problems may affect 25-50% of preschoolers and up to 40% of adolescents. The more common complaints include insomnia, daytime sleepiness, snoring and things like nightmares, sleepwalking and bedwetting.
Should kids have a bedtime? And what do you recommend that time be? How about tweens and teens?
Yes, kids should have a bedtime. Children thrive with some structure in place, and a consistent bedtime — even on weekends — is a healthy sleep practice. The bedtime will depend on the age of the child. No two kids are the same, so within the range suggested, the parent will have to identify how many hours are ideal for their child and set their bedtime accordingly. The bedtime will depend on the desired morning wake-up time and consider any daytime naps the child will take. Newborn and young infant sleep is unique, as they do not have established circadian rhythms, require significant help from the caregiver to sleep and naturally have frequent night waking. Adolescents have a naturally delayed circadian rhythm — a naturally later bedtime — that can make it difficult to get enough sleep with early school start times and other social and academic demands, so adhering to a routine is even more important in this age range.
General sleep requirements by age:
- 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)
- Ages 6-12 years: 9-12 hours
- Ages 13-18 years: 8-10 hours
How can parents help transition kids from a summertime sleep schedule, which can be more flexible, back to the school year schedule?
The most important and effective thing you can do is set an earlier bedtime. If there is a large time gap between the current bedtime and the desired bedtime, walk the bedtime back by 15 minutes every few nights until you arrive at the desired bedtime. Pay attention to how much sleep your child has gotten when they act and feel well rested and try to match their regular sleep duration with that. A nap can help restore some of the sleep debt, but regular napping in a child who does not usually nap can interfere with night sleep, so an earlier bedtime is a more appropriate long-term solution.
What can parents do to improve their kids’ quality of sleep?
- Set a bedtime that allows them to sleep within the recommended time range for their age, ideally even on weekends. This is the most important thing you can do.
- A bedtime routine can help them “take off the day” and wind down for bed. It should be relaxing, not stimulating, long or complicated. This prepares the body and mind for sleep and, eventually, their body will know that sleep is coming based on the sequence of events. In younger children, bath, brushing teeth, book and then bed is a common bedtime routine. In older children, the routine can include things like journaling, stretching or a body-scan meditation to relax the body and mind.
- Avoid screens for an hour before bedtime.
- Avoid stimulants like caffeine (including chocolate) several hours before bedtime.
- Foster good physical and emotional health. For example, be physically active and teach processing of emotions and coping strategies.
- Assess the sleep environment for excess light, temperature extremes and excess noise.
- Consistently enforce limits on bedtimes and bedtime routines. Offer positive reinforcement for compliance.
What’s one thing you wish all parents knew about sleep?
With the abundance of screens, demanding school schedules, extracurricular and other social activities, you will likely have to take a more active role in making sure your child gets enough sleep. Each child is different, so tune into your child as you assess and make changes. Speak with your pediatrician for specific strategies to improve your individual child’s sleep and to help identify causes of poor sleep that might require medical intervention.