The Importance of Sleep
Proper sleep is one of the most important elements of good physical and mental health, and children need even more of it than their parents do. A key to solving a child’s sleep problems lies in developing strategies that meet his or her unique sleep needs and recognizing how sleep can affect emotions and behaviors.
While most adults can get by on 7-9 hours of rest per night, teenagers need up to 10 hours, and young children may need 9-15 hours depending on their age.
For children, lack of sleep is often the result of factors they can’t control. And often, kids don’t know how to express what the problem is. So, sleep-related issues may bring unexpected emotion or uncontrolled behavior.
Maggie Bell, a Great Circle therapist and case manager, says it’s important for parents to be in tune with their child’s unique nighttime needs, which may change as they grow and develop. “One child may benefit from a calm, quiet environment before bedtime, but another may need to work off excess energy,” she says. “So for some, a pre-bedtime dance party helps. And others need to put away blue light-emitting electronics well before bed to fully relax.”
Bell shares a story involving a client in one of Great Circle’s residential cottages. “She often had angry outbursts at bedtime, but no one knew why. Talking with her, we learned she had always gone to bed hungry at home, and she didn’t know any other way to express herself,” explains Bell. A banana and glass of milk later, eaten in a rocking chair and she went quietly to bed, she says, adding that this really underscores the importance of safe, open communication with your child about their needs.
This is especially true if something is weighing heavily on the child’s mind, such as school problems or conflicts with friends. “Young children may believe that if they stay awake, tomorrow won’t come, and they won’t have to go to school or face an uncomfortable situation,” she says. “May sure they know that talking about it will help and that they will feel better with a good night’s sleep.”
Children on the autism spectrum often have additional bedtime challenges. Often sensory issues can trigger challenges with the child’s environment. Bell says some children need a bedroom with a consistent temperature, or quiet and dark with no music or TV sound in the background, or soothing sounds from a fan or air filter. Having a visual schedule of bedtime preparations may be beneficial, she says, or perhaps a warm bath close to bedtime or other relaxing activities if your child finds that soothing.
And, she adds, all children benefit from a consistent nighttime routine and bedtime, which includes preparing for bed 15-30 minutes ahead.
Bell urges parents to talk with their kids to find out what’s important to them and chances are “you can uncover what’s triggering their sleep problems.”
Here are a few resources you may find helpful:
- There are several children’s books about healthy sleep that teach positive bedtime behaviors – “One Minute Till Bedtime,” by Kenn Nesbitt; “Good Night Yoga: A Pose-by-Pose Bedtime Story,” by Mariam Gates; “Sweet Dreams, Lima Beans,” by Laura E. Pasternak; and “Mindful Moments at Bedtime,” by Paloma Rossa.
- The Sleep Foundation (www.sleepfoundation.org) offers advice on helping kids get healthy rest.
- Autism Speaks (www.autismspeaks.org) has several practice ideas and tips for families with a child on the autism spectrum.