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The Importance of Early Bedtime for Children – A Psychologist’s Perspective

By Dr Cheryl Andaya

Your child wants to play but it’s getting pretty late and it’s already past their bedtime. You decide to let them stay up just a bit longer. Then, you realize how late it is and they have school the next day. You’re not too worried since they’ve stayed up late before and managed okay. While it seems harmless, not getting enough sleep can have long-term negative effects on a child’s development. An article in the Harvard Gazette (McGreevey, 2017) states “children ages 3 to 7 who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to have problems with attention, emotional control, and peer relationships in mid-childhood, according to a new study led by Harvard pediatrician.”

I am guilty of letting my children stay up late at times, especially during days where there is no school. However, we know that adults who are sleep deprived exhibit irritability, drowsiness, and decreased cognitive functioning. In fact, they have shown that driving while sleep deprived is equivalent to driving drunk (National Sleep Foundation, n.d.). Children, who are still developing physically, emotionally, and cognitively can have immediate and long-term effects when appropriate sleep is not achieved. We have all experienced the tired toddler who is screaming and throwing a tantrum. Little things will set off my 7-year-old if he misses his nap. If your child is having behavioral problems, it’s always a good idea to reflect and see if they missed their afternoon naptime or if they slept late or poorly the night before. Children in school who have not had enough sleep fall behind as maintaining attention becomes difficult. Sometimes it can seem like symptoms of Attention-Deficit Disorder. When I conduct psychological testing with children and adults, I typically ask if they had a good night’s sleep the night before. Poor sleep also affects mood. Teenagers are especially susceptible as they go through hormonal changes and changes in sleep patterns. When children and teenagers stay up late playing videogames and then sleep in half the day, this can be very disruptive to their functioning.

Problems exhibited by children who don’t have enough sleep

  1. Irritability
  2. Inattention
  3. Defiant behavior
  4. Depression
  5. Difficulty thinking
  6. Slowed thinking times
  7. Concentration problems
  8. Emotional sensitivity
  9. Tantrums
  10. Insomnia due to being overly tired

Teaching good sleep hygiene is important at an early age. I have run into many teens and adults who suffer from insomnia due to poor sleep hygiene. Here are a few pointers on getting your child started on developing good sleep habits.

Sleep Routines

One way to help ensure your child is getting enough sleep is to have nighttime routines and stick to the recommended amount of sleep. Check out this infographic from the National Sleep Foundation for the recommended amount of sleep based on your child’s age: https://sleepfoundation.org/sites/default/files/SleepTimeRecommendations012615%5B1%5D-page-001_0.jpg. Each child is different so be observant on what is the best amount of sleep for your child.

Winding Down

Help your child begin winding down at the end of the day. Try to make this winddown period the same time each day. Make sure they have eaten a good meal so they don’t go to bed hungry. If they have problems with wetting the bed, you want to make sure you don’t give them any liquids too close to bedtime. A nice warm bath can help them physically relax. Reading a book, saying prayers, meditating, reviewing positive aspects of the day, and of course, snuggles can also be a nice way to slow things down. This also helps them think of positive thoughts when the lights go out and they dream. Providing special individualized attention to your child during this time gives them a sense of security, which helps them ease into sleep. If you’re rushing to get them to sleep and feeling stressed, your child will feel that tension and it will make falling asleep harder, so try to work on calming yourself as much as calming your child.

Environment Conducive to Sleep

Your child’s sleep environment is also important. Many parents allow their children to fall asleep with the television on; however, this is not the best way to achieve sleep and teaches poor sleep hygiene which can contribute to future sleep problems. Here are a few things that help in providing an environment that promotes sleep:

  1. Blackout curtains
  2. White noise maker or lullaby (depending on the age of your child). Make sure it has a sleep mode that will turn off after a certain time. My son enjoys falling asleep to music. When he wakes and the music had turned off, he has a clock radio where he can just hit the button and the sleep mode will kick on again.
  3. Oil diffuser and oils (I use doterra – see my resources page on my website (livewithcouragenow.com/resources-and-reviews) for the oils and type of diffuser I use to help with putting my children and myself to sleep)
  4. Nightlight – The very tiny amount of light emitted can help your child if he/she is afraid of the dark. They have nightlights that are also oil diffusers!
  5. Try not to have any electronics (television, video games, iphones, ipads) in the room. I usually have our children charge their devices in our room where we can ensure they are not going on after a certain time.
  6. Cuddle object – My younger child always selects one cuddle buddy to sleep with. Having this security object helped him transition when he started preschool and it helps to have when we go on trips.

Consistency

Finally, one of the most important things when it comes to ensuring your child gets a good night’s sleep, is to develop good sleep patterns through consistency. Make sure they have the same sleep and wake times. Our bodies rely on routines to get that circadian rhythm going. What is the circadian rhythm? You can find out more about it here (https://www.nigms.nih.gov/education/pages/Factsheet_CircadianRhythms.aspx). Basically, the site states “Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle.” It responds to light and darkness, which is why using blackout curtains and keeping things that produce too much light, like electronic devices, out of the room are important. Once you get your child on the same routine of sleeping and waking each day, it becomes much easier to put them to sleep and the waking hours become much better. Babies are a little different since they are prone to mixing their days and nights; however, even with babies, you want to get them on a routine as much as possible when they are ready.

In my practice, I’ve seen children with mood and behavioral problems improve in functioning when they get on a consistent routine that provides enough sleep and healthy eating. Young children need to learn healthy sleep hygiene, which will set them up for a better future.

Works Cited
McGreevey, S. (2017, March 10). The Harvard Gazette. Retrieved from news.harvard.edu: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/03/study-flags-later-risks-for-sleep-deprived-kids/
National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved from sleepfoundation.org: https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/drowsy-driving-vs-drunk-driving-how-similar-are-they

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Cheryl Andaya is a licensed clinical psychologist in Hawaii with over 10 years of experience in working with children, adults and families. She has testified as an expert witness in Hawaii courts and enjoys making a difference in people’s lives. She has taken her years of knowledge and clinical experience to create livewithcouragenow.com a website where individuals can gain knowledge in parenting, leadership, coaching, and finding courage to live their best life!

Aloha everyone! As a clinical psychologist, my mission is to help others be the best parent, leader, and find the courage to step out of their comfort zones, punch self-doubt in the face, and conquer their goals. I grew up with humble beginnings with immigrant parents and now raise a family of my own with a blend of cultural appreciation and respect for themselves and others.

Please join me in improving our futures!
Facebook: facebook.com/livewithcouragenow
IG: Instagram.com/livewithcouragenow
Pinterest: pinterest.com/livewithcouragenow

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