Is your child getting a good night’s sleep?

Written by Sophie Smith (Clinic Director and Clinical/Developmental Psychologist ) and Huda Al Bukhari (Psychologist and Clinical Registrar).

How much sleep we need depends on our age. According to the Sleep Health Foundation, the recommendations suggest 10-13 hours for preschoolers, 9-11 hours for 6-13 yr olds and 8-10 hours sleep for 14-17 yr olds. Young adults are recommended to require between 7 and 9 hours. Generally the amount we need diminishes with age, but perhaps not as quickly as we might be led to think by looking at social norms. 

A good indicator of whether your child is getting enough sleep is how sleepy they are during the day – not just the first half hour after waking. Young children can give us confusing signals as they may actually act more hyperactively, which can be a common sign of over tiredness closer to bed time. 

Some further signs that a young person might be not getting enough sleep include: feeling fatigued, irritated, experiencing low mood or feeling more anxious, changes in appetite, poor concentration/attention, difficulty learning, poor decision making and problem solving as well as aggressive or impulsive behaviour. 

The important thing is to notice these potential signs. Most young people who are overtired do not recognise it and may actually tell you they are unable to fall asleep or display difficulty getting to sleep. The conclusion is often that they therefore must be getting enough sleep. Actually this is often to the contrary… when we are over tired (ie ignore the body’s drive to sleep for too long), we actually make it more difficult for ourselves to fall asleep easily. This can lead to a circular problem which can be hard to break. 

There are many things to take into consideration when approaching a potential sleep problem (I wont try to download all of that here!!) however there are a few golden rules to be aware of, if you do nothing else:

  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Even on weekends. Avoid major sleep ins or late nights… changes in wake up or go to sleep time of more than an hour can have a genuine impact on the next night’s sleep and therefore trigger a tricky sleep problem, or lead to a recurring “Sunday Night Syndrome”. If there are some one off deviations from the routine – recognise this and dont expect to get back on track immediately… create a graduated return over a few nights to the regular schedule. 
  • Have a predictable and calming hour prior to bed. Dim the lights. Leave the screens behind if you can (particularly personal screens like iPads that sit very close to your face) and focus on activities that are soothing or habitual and nothing too exciting. Think: packing the bag for the next day, audio books, soothing music (whatever that may be… it generally isn’t heavy metal!!), cuddling or quietly playing with a pet, drawing, reading or being read to by a parent, having a warm bath or shower, having a hot milk (non-caffeinated), brushing teeth, going to the toilet and putting on PJs. All of these are applicable for younger children as well as teens. Choose a few main things and give it a try. Try to stick to the same predictable order and focus on it getting more low key over the hour. It should be enjoyable but not fun filled. This bit really is very individual as I have known some of my young clients to find reading way over stimulating prior to bed and find it difficult to “switch off the story” in their head as they try to get to sleep. It is really about finding what works and sometimes this involves a bit of trial and error… chat with your child to find the right solution for them – trying things and rating what may or may not work. Make a note of it as in my personal experience – I will sometimes forget these little learnings and then find myself struggling all over again!
  • Stay out of bed until you intend to turn out the light with the intention of going to sleep – give your body the opportunity to associate bed with sleep only – it will pay dividends! You might like to have a bean bag or cushiony area in the bedroom where your child can read or do the other calming activities above instead of sitting in bed. 

Sleep problems can be tough to cope with and manage as a parent. If you think you might need additional support with your child’s sleep, you can get in touch with a child psychologist to help formulate a sleep plan based on your individual child’s particular needs. Contact or call 9420 0896 to book in with one of our psychologists.

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