By: Laura Van Zandt, OTR/L
As a soon to be new mom, sleep is something that is very important to me and something I will soon be getting very little of in my life! I often get questions by parents about sleep and how to better help their little ones develop good sleep habits and routines. There are many great sleep books available to read and review for sleep suggestions. Many are targeted towards babies; however, they still contain useful information about typical sleep patterns as well as some guidelines for establishing sleep routines and how to sleep coach. In order to better prepare myself and my husband, I’ve been reviewing some of my handouts on sleep and wanted to share what I found useful.
My first step with families is to help them understand that sleep is a learned behavior. There are many reasons children have difficulties with sleeping. A child may have difficulty sleeping because:
- She hasn’t yet learned to put herself down to sleep
- He might have difficulty self-calming and quieting his body and mind for sleep.
- She might have separation anxiety
- He is testing limits
- She might have an overactive imagination
- He wants to play longer and will resist going to bed
- She is sensitive to noise, textures, or odors which makes it difficult to relax to sleep.
Older children have increasing demands on their time from school, sports, extracurricular activities, and other social activities which can impact sleep. A child might also snore or have noisy breathing during sleep which should be evaluated by their pediatrician with possibly a referral to an ENT to rule out sleep apnea or enlarged adenoids.
Going to sleep and getting enough sleep are skills we need to teach our children. Optimal sleep helps to ensure children are able to play and ready to participate in daily activities. It also promotes brain development and growth.
How many hours does a child need to sleep?
Newborns sleep about 8 to 9 hours in the daytime and about 8 hours at night. Most babies do not begin sleeping through the night (6 to 8 hours) without waking until at least 3 months of age; however, this varies considerably and some babies do not sleep through the night until closer to 1 year.
Infants typically sleep 9-12 hours during the night and take half hour to two hour naps, one to four times a day, fewer as they reach age one. Research shows that when infants are put to bed drowsy but not asleep, they are more likely to become self-soothers which allows them to fall asleep independently and put themselves back to sleep when they wake up. Babies need our help to establish their own sleeping and waking patterns. You can help your baby sleep by recognizing signs of sleep readiness, teaching him/her to fall asleep on their own, and providing the right environment for comfortable and safe sleep. Your baby may show signs of being ready for sleep by rubbing their eyes, yawning, becoming fussier, or looking away.
Toddlers need about 12-14 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period. When they reach about 18 months of age their nap times will typically decrease to one a day lasting one to three hours. Caregivers should try to avoid naps occurring too close to bedtime as this could delay sleep at night.
Preschoolers typically sleep 11-13 hours each night and most do not nap after 5 years of age. It is not uncommon for preschoolers to experience nighttime fears and nightmares in addition to sleepwalking and sleep terrors.
Children ages 5-12 years need 10-11 hours of sleep. Older children may show signs of insufficient sleep by falling sleeping when it is not nap time, frequently waking-up tired and crabbing, seeming irritable or difficulty to please, appearing clingy, or may have a short attention span.
Here are some general tips for all ages.
Routines and consistency is a critical. Parents and caregivers can significantly influence a child’s sleep through scheduling and routines. Some kids do well taking a bath and reading books/telling a story while lying in bed and preparing to sleep. Reading together can be a great way to spend some quality time together and allow the body to relax. Some kids might also need some calming heavy work input prior to bath time or getting into bed for stories. One of the first things new parents learn at the hospital is how to swaddle their newborn because snugly wrapping your baby in a blanket provides calming deep pressure tactile and proprioceptive sensory input allowing the newborn to feel secure and safe. Rocking chairs and baby swings are also some of the most valued and used pieces of baby equipment because of the repetitive movement qualities that provides calming vestibular sensory input.
Some examples of calming heavy work input and movement that might help your child include massage, yoga, pillow squishes, gentle, rhythmical, and linear swinging for at least 15 minutes before bedtime. I would recommend trying simple games that don’t have a competitive nature to them since they are more likely to increase arousal level. We want our children to learn to calm down and be quiet before bedtime.
Darkness is key. Make sure that the bedroom where your child sleeps is as dark as possible and pay special attention to blocking out the early morning sun. Sunlight is a natural wake-up signal; using room-darkening shades and curtains to block out light will help your child sleep. If you are going to use a night light in your child’s room, try to make a compromise and place one right outside your child’s bedroom or opt to turn off the night light after an hour. You can also try a touch operated, battery powered night light with a timer that goes off if your child wakes up in the middle of the night and needs to use the bathroom or hears a noise and needs to be reassured briefly.
Provide some white noise. Parents and caregivers of babies can often be heard making the familiar “shushing” noise or quietly humming to quiet and calm their little ones. These repetitive, quiet sounds mimic the calming, reassuring noises the baby heard when he was in the womb. A sound machine or small fan in your baby’s room will provide a soothing hum of background noise. This has the added benefit of drowning out other noise that might otherwise wake your child
Adjust pajamas. Don’t let your child go to sleep in daytime clothes. Observe your child’s sensory preference for touch. Typically speaking, soft textures are not just comforting but it is also a tactile sign for your body to be calm and quiet down. If you are the parent of a baby, you might want to consider swaddling or using a sleep sack as they grow. Swaddling providers a snug comfort via deep pressure and tactile input that is similar to the womb space.
Look at different blankets and mattresses. Some children, especially children who might have difficulties with sensory processing, are sensitive to the feel of different textures. Blankets of different weights and materials might also be preferred at different times of the year. Weighted blankets or lycra sheets over the mattress may also be helpful options as the provide gentle but sustained deep pressure input which can be calming to the body. Some children like to create a cocoon of several blankets, prefer a sleeping bag, or some have favorite blankets that they use. I was surprised to find many different mattress textures. Try as many mattresses as possible in the store to see which is more comfortable.
Try for natural warmth: Try tossing a blanket in the dryer or cuddling up to a warm scented stuffed animal. Warmth typically sends calming signals to the body to help quiet the mind.
Look at scents: Certain scents can have a calming effect on the nervous system and help to encourage sleep. There are a variety of different scents that can be calming.
Look at nutrition: Proper nutrition throughout the day can also significantly impact the ability to sleep at night. This can be difficult with our picky eaters but being more aware and trying to find a balance can be helpful. The biggest factors to keep in mind include:
- Plenty of protein
- Limiting carbohydrates and sugars
- Limiting preservatives, additives, and dyes,
- Having plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Incorporate heavy work during the day: Exercise helps tire our bodies out and make us ready for night. Provide plenty of opportunities throughout the day to engage in heavy work activities (i.e. push, pull, climb, squeeze, gentle rough housing). These activities can include pushing/pulling a laundry basket to the bathroom to complete nighttime routines. Inside the laundry basket include several heavy items as well as pajamas, toothbrush, toothpaste, favorite books to read, etc. The activities can also include wall push-ups to be completed by standing 2-3 ft. from a wall, placing hands on the wall, and slowly lowering body to wall. There are a ton of ideas for heavy work input. Heavy work input involves any type of activity where the person is actively moving their body against resistance.
Limit screen time: No screen time at least one hour prior to bedtime. It has been suggested that longer screen times may be affecting sleep by reducing the time spent doing other activities – such as exercise – that may be beneficial for sleep and sleep regulation. The content on the iPad can also impact sleep. For example, exciting video games, dramatic or scary television shows, or even stimulating phone conversations can engage the brain and lead to the release of hormones such as adrenaline. This can in turn make it more difficult to fall asleep or maintain sleep. Less obvious is the impact that light has on sleep and on our sleep-wake patterns in general.
Try an earlier bedtime: Contrary to popular belief, kids tend to sleep more and longer with an earlier bedtime. Ever heard of the “witching hour”? This is typically when kids are overtired and doing everything in their power to fight off sleep. If a child gets to the point of exhaustion or over tired, it can backfire on the nervous system. Just think of the nights when you pushed past your feeling of exhaustion because you just had to get that one last thing down. How did you feel later that night when trying to fall asleep? It was probably more difficult for you.
This is because when you work past your point of exhaustion it is usually because you are stressed. Stress releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol normally rises and falls throughout the day and it typically highest at around 8AM and lowest between midnight and 4AM. Stress normally causes a surge in adrenal hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that increases alertness making it more difficult to relax into sound sleep. Frequent stress can chronically elevate these hormone levels, resulting in a hyper-vigilant state impacting continually restful sleep.
We ALL need sleep, and when there are concerns, it becomes even more important. When we are not getting enough sleep it impacts our mood, behavior, and overall self-regulation.
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- Stanford Children’s Health
- St. Luke’s Hospital Sleep Medicine and Research Center
- American Occupational Therapy Association