In the year 2017 BK (Before Kids), I often chatted with friends, exhausted from being up late with their little ones the night before. They frequently used the word “overtired” when citing the reason for their children’s sleep struggles. Overtired? What does that even mean? The solution, I thought, is easy: shut your eyes and go to sleep!
I’m now the proud papa to two-year-old twins. I can assure you that being overtired is a real phenomenon, and it’s spectacularly frustrating. I also know that sleep is critical for development in all stages of a young life. But there is help!
Here’s why quality sleep matters
I’ve found few things more debilitating to daily functioning than lack of sleep. The main cause of my sleep deficit? My kids not sleeping (misery loves company). Although I’ve finished growing (tell that to my ears, nose, and waist), my kids are sprouting like weeds.
In the case of kids, quality sleep is critical to cognitive development (learning, memory, and emotional regulation) and essential to physical development. Contrary to popular lore, there’s very little evidence of a link between sleep and height.
However, there is a significant correlation between sleep and body mass index (BMI), that is, height-to-weight ratios, in children. In adults, high BMI levels are commonly associated with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.
Fatigue signs and possible remedies
Here are some cohort-specific signs that your offspring might not be getting enough sleep. Because we’ve been there too, here are some ways you might be able to help them:
Infants (4 to 12 months)
Signs of fatigue:
- pulling at ears
- arm and leg jerking or arching backward
- touching gently without picking them up
- singing quietly or talking in a soothing voice
- rocking or light bouncing—if you have to pick them up
- feeding them (fussiness might be due to hunger)
Toddlers (1 to 3 years)
Signs of fatigue:
- difficulty expressing emotions
- read a story
- play quiet music
- draw a warm bath
- diffuse some lavender essential oils
Children (4 to 12 years)
Signs of fatigue:
- difficulty paying attention
- acting impulsively
- establish a bedtime routine that starts one hour before expected sleep
- do some mindfulness exercises together, including breathing techniques or guided imagery
- increase physical activity throughout the day
- give them some nuts one hour before sleep
Teens (13 to 18 years)
Signs of fatigue:
- difficulty concentrating and learning
- displaying behavioral problems
- moodiness and irritability
- showing a lack of motivation
- displaying depressive symptoms or mood swings
- encourage at least 60 minutes of exercise every day (preferably outdoors)
- model good sleep hygiene
- turn off screens at least an hour before bedtime
- cut out caffeine and snacks before bedtime
Melatonin for kids’ sleep problems?
Melatonin may be a short-term treatment for sleep issues, but it is not intended for long-term use, or for children under 12 years old. Use only after checking with your health care practitioner.
My kids still end up in my bed most nights (further chipping into the 25 percent of real estate that was allotted to me, BK, by my wife). Thankfully, I was fortunate to talk with parenting coach Dawn Whittaker (dawnwhittaker.com) to get educated.
Let’s hear from the expert
Whittaker has a wide range of experience in all child rearing-related issues, including sleep, potty training, picky eating, and behavior.
[Q]: In terms of a child’s day-to-day undesirable behavior, where would you place the importance of sleep, in relation to things such as stimulating activity, diet, and parenting style?
[A]: There’s a direct correlation between poor sleep and undesirable behavior. Children can’t cope well if the quality of their sleep is poor, just like adults don’t cope well, in their day-to-day lives, with poor sleep hygiene. What’s more important [than how long children sleep] is the quality of that sleep. In children, I often see a correlation between poor sleep quality and poor eating habits, and as we work on the regulation of one, it has a positive effect on the other.
[Q]: Many parents struggle to get their toddlers to sleep through the night without ending up in “the big bed.” Do you have any quick tips for those of us who are shoo-ins for a zombie role on The Walking Dead?
[A]: Unfortunately, toddler sleep challenges often take more time to resolve than those in a six-month-old. When working with toddlers, the first thing is to have realistic expectations around how long change will take: upwards of three weeks in most cases. Most parents are successful when they know the issue, know the turnaround time, know the strategy, and commit to change. Your child will follow you, so it’s important that parents are on the same page.
[Q]: It can take a lifetime to understand the complexities of sleep in relation to, well, everything, but is there one thing that you, as a sleep expert, wished that everyone knew?
[A] I would want parents to know that instilling good sleep habits young is best; it’s not selfish, and it’s not cruel. Children who sleep poorly will have parents who sleep poorly, and this can often cause resentment, frustration, and unbalance in the home. Parenting all day whilst exhausted will leave you little energy to do anything more than worry about how much sleep you had the night before, and how much you’ll get the next.
How light affects our sleep
Did you know that kids 8-18 years old average eight hours per day of screen time? Increased time in front of phones, TVs, tablets, and computers is strongly correlated with significant sleep disturbances (both in quantity and quality) and consequential behavioral health problems.
The reason is connected to our circadian clocks, which use light and dark signals in our environment to prepare us for when we need to be active and when we need to sleep. As it turns out, our circadian clocks are most sensitive to light from about two hours before our usual bedtime and all through the night—until about an hour after we usually wake up.
Blue light waves—the kind emitted by fluorescent and LED lights and electronic screens on TVs, computers, tablets, and cellphones—have the strongest impact on our circadian clocks. This means that exposure to blue light during the two hours before bedtime can make it very difficult to fall asleep—and stay asleep.