4 Ways to Help Your Child Get Enough Sleep

Children need sleep, plain and simple. We all do. Without enough sleep, we get cranky and, with time, unhealthy. But for children, it’s especially important because the effects of sleep deprivation can lead to lifelong problems.

Studies have shown that not getting enough sleep can contribute to obesity. But even more troubling, studies show that children who don’t get enough sleep can end up with behavioral and learning problems that persist for years and affect a child’s life forever. Teens who don’t get enough sleep are at higher risk for depression and learning problems, and are more likely to get into car accidents and other accidents.

The prevalence of devices such as cell phones and tablets also has implications for sleep. More and more, children are staying up, or being woken up, by these devices. Add to that our achievement culture; between homework and extracurricular activities, many teens simply have less time for sleep.

How much sleep does your child need? Here are the recommended amounts:

  • Infants: 12 to 16 hours (including naps)
  • Toddlers: 11 to 14 hours (including naps)
  • Preschoolers: 10 to 13 hours (including naps)
  • Grade school-aged children: 9 to 12 hours
  • Teens: 8 to 10 hours

Ultimately, though, it’s up to your child. The bottom number is the absolute minimum; some children need closer to the maximum in order to function well. These days, I am finding that many children, especially teens and tweens, aren’t getting enough sleep. It’s common for a teen to tell me that they get 6 to 7 hours a night, which just isn’t enough.

Here are four ways you can help your child get enough sleep

1.  Make sleep a priority. Just like you schedule time for homework, sports, and other activities, schedule time for sleep. Literally. Start from when your child needs to get up in the morning, and then count back the number of hours your child needs to sleep… and set a non-negotiable bedtime. For tweens and teens, this may lead to some tough conversations and decisions about schedules and activities, and may mean cutting back on some activities, finding ways to get homework done earlier, and pushing some leisure activities (like video games) to weekends. If you are going to make it work you will also need to…

2.  Start the bedtime routine earlier. None of us can go right from a physically or mentally intense activity right to sleep. If bedtime is 9:00 pm, that means that your child needs to start winding down between 8 and 8:30 so that they are ready to actually fall asleep at 9. A big part of winding down is to…

3.  Shut off the screens. The blue light emitted from screens can wake up the brain and make it harder to fall asleep. This is particularly true for “small screens” such as phones or tablets that are held closer to the face. Shut them off an hour before you want your child to be asleep. Phones should be charged outside of the bedroom — or at the very least, put in Do Not Disturb mode. If your child tries to tell you they need their phone to wake them up in the morning, buy them an alarm clock.

Another important way to be sure your child gets enough sleep is to…

4.  Keep the same sleep routines on weekends and vacations. A little leeway is okay, like staying up an hour or so later if your child can and will sleep later in the morning (if you have one of those kids who is up at dawn no matter what, staying up later may not work out so well). It throws our bodies off when our sleep schedules change; we do much better when they stay the same.

Remember, too, that children pay more attention to what we do than what we say. If you make your own sleep a priority, you will set a good example for your child — and feel better yourself.

This article was authored by Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing.