Sleeping through the Night - How to help your child get to sleep and stay asleep

What is the importance of sleep?

We all know that we need sleep because our body demands it of us. But what is so important about sleep? Miss a few nights sleep and it soon becomes evident through a large number of varied problems that can be seen in both adults and children.

Of immediate concern to the parent of a sleep deprived child is the affect it has on mood. A child lacking is sleep is invariably more cranky. However, there are many other important benefits to proper sleep besides an improvement in mood.

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, the sleep during which you are actively dreaming, helps you organize your memories, solidifies your learning and improves your concentration. As babies have so much to learn, this explains why their sleep cycle is 50% REM sleep according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Also, according to a report published in Monitor on Psychology, the brain uses our sleep time to repair the damage caused by our metabolism. It also replenishes our energy stores and grows new neurons. (Neurons are the cells that process and transmit information.)

The other messengers of the body (hormones) can also be affected by lack of sleep because many are timed to release right before or during sleep. One example that is vital to children is growth hormones.

Some of the negative side effects of lack of sleep include trouble concentrating, irritability, increased risk of accidents, lower productivity, lessening in motor skills and a weakening of the immune system. Sleep is of vital importance to people of all ages.

How Much Sleep?

  • Babies from 0 to 6 months need 16 hours of sleep
  • Babies from 6 months to 3 years need between 10 and 14 hours of sleep
  • Children from 3 to 6 years need between 10 and 12 hours of sleep
  • Children from 6 to 9 years need about 10 hours of sleep
  • Children from 9 to 12 years need about 9 hours of sleep
  • Teenagers need about 9 hours of sleep
  • Adults need about 7 to 8 hours of sleep*

*Note: Pregnant women often need a few more hours of sleep.

How do You Encourage Sleep?

There have been many suggestions over the years about how to encourage children to sleep. I will discuss some of the popular methods and those that have worked for me. However, I think it is important to begin with an understanding that sleep is regulated by your internal clock.

This clock is sensitive to light, time of day and other such cues. For this reason it is important to maintain a routine with your children. Then their very routine will send cues to their bodies that it is time to prepare for sleep.

If your child is still an infant than you can begin to teach them good sleep habits by placing the child to bed while sleepy but not yet asleep. This helps the baby learn to get him or herself asleep. By the age of six months most babies are sleeping through the night. However, some babies wait until nine months or longer.

To encourage night time sleeping expose your child to light and noise during the day. And don't discount the importance of taking the time to play with your baby. At night try to limit your interaction to only what is necessary for feeding.

Another way to encourage sleep at night is with aromatherapy. Many baby products now come in lavender scent to encourage your little one to sleep. Baby massage is another tool you can try to sooth your restless infant. For myself, when my daughter got older I added a spoonful of instant cereal to her bottle to help keep her stomach full throughout the night.

For older children it is also important to maintain a bedtime routine. The routine should be designed to help a child wind down after the activities of the day. Avoid caffeine and other stimulants. If a child needs a bedtime snack try foods that contain tryptophan like milk, bananas, yogurt, cheese, eggs or turkey. (To learn more about tryptophan visit the World's Healthiest Foods.)

Also, the bedroom environment should be kept as consistent as possible. A cool, dark, quiet place that encourages sleep is best. Keep the television and computer out of the bedroom.

As a toddler begins to develop independence and imagination, sleep may be more disrupted. Set and maintain consistent rules. Communicate them in a language your toddler can easily understand. If the child has a favorite blanket or stuffed animal it can be used as a security object. When your toddler reaches preschool age sleep walking and night terrors peak.

Many of the things that help you sleep will also help your child. There is a reason that a good bedtime story and a glass of milk are the most commonly sighted sleep encouragers--it usually works.

Remember sleep is important to your child's physical and mental health. If you feel your child is having a problem beyond normal reluctance to sleep, trust your instincts and contact the pediatrician.

Sweet dreams.

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