Childhood Sleep Dilemmas
By Jacques Bourgeois
Eyes Wide Open
Ah, the trial of getting your youngsters into bed – and making sure they stay there the entire night. After bedtime stories, many of us do the nightly patrol to check for monsters under the bed and in the closet. Then it’s time for the nightly “I need a glass of water” plea. On bad nights, there are fits of crying and nightmares. It’s enough to make any parent wonder what’s normal. How much is too much – or too little – sleep? What constitutes a sleeping disorder? What other challenges do children face as they develop?
“Sleep is a very important component for a child’s development. From infancy all the way until adulthood, the human body will require more than eight hours of sleep every day,” says Dr. Cindy Jon, a pediatric pulmonologist affiliated with Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. “And the best way to ensure that is to establish a sleep routine and put them to bed at the same time every night, even on the weekends.”
Did you know?
TV, computer or phones may cause disruptive sleep patterns. Eliminate all forms of stimulation at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
During the first 24 months of a child’s life, he or she will require about 16 to 17 hours of sleep daily. “Naturally, a child isn’t expected to sleep for such a long time frame through the night. This is why naptime is just as important for childhood development as sleeping through the night,” Dr. Jon explains. “Once they have a normal nighttime sleeping cycle, then you can start to factor in and plan your naptime. Naps allow children to finish out the amount of sleep their body needs to develop throughout the day.”
Depending on feeding patterns and other factors, many infants will begin to sleep completely through the night, without waking up, after the first four months. From then through age 9, they require up to 12 to 13 hours of rest every day, while preteens need 10 to 11 hours and teenagers require at least eight hours.
As disorders go, narcolepsy and insomnia are rare in children, while sleep apnea is more common. “Obstructive sleep apnea is a very serious disorder that can cause gasping, pauses in breathing and loud snoring at night, due to the throat muscles tightening and restricting air passage during sleep,” says Dr. Jon. “It’s good to be on the lookout for the symptoms of sleep apnea, but only a quantitative evaluation during a sleep study can truly diagnose that so it may be treated properly as well.” If you believe your child may be suffering from apnea or another sleep disorder, contact your doctor.
Ensuring that your children are practicing proper sleeping habits starts with setting limits, routines, boundaries and positive reinforcement. “It’s never too early to start a routine,” says Dr. Jon. “Kids are very adaptable and respond very well to it.”
Most children will fall asleep if there aren’t any distractions. Thirty minutes before bedtime, be sure to eliminate forms of stimulation such as TV and games, high-energy play and loud noises. “This is the most opportune time to prepare kids for bedtime by taking a bath, dimming the lights and reading a bedtime story,” says Dr. Jon. “The child will begin to associate this routine as their shutdown process every night. Then, wake them at the same time every morning with a positive and encouraging attitude.”
The process of setting a routine and boundaries should start at infancy and will teach your child how to become a self-soother if he or she wakes up at night. “It’s not easy, but if you come running every time your baby wakes, they will think, ‘If I cry, you will come and rock me to sleep,’ and they’ll expect it every time they wake up,” Dr. Jon says.
Follow these guidelines, and there’s a good chance your children won’t be the only ones getting a full night’s rest.
Children's Memorial Hermann partnered with Houstonia Magazine to publish this article, which includes parenting tips and advice from the affiliated physicians from McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. Not all affiliated physicians are Memorial Hermann employees.