The Power of Zzzs: why sleep is a valuable part of children’s wellbeing

For many of us, some of our first lessons about sleep stemmed from yelling ‘Wake Up Jeff” at the latest episode of the Wiggles. Although the actors of this children’s classic may have changed, the messages about the importance of sleep remain—sleep is an integral part of healthy growth and emotional and physical development.

The importance of sleep for children

When we are sleeping, our brain is busy sorting and storing the information from the day, and our bodies are physically rejuvenating from the day. For children, who are constantly growing, running around, and learning new skills, getting enough sleep is essential for their development and for providing the energy they need to fully engage in their action-packed lives.

Without enough sleep, children have a particularly hard time with mental processing; they may experience difficulties with concentration, memory, regulating their emotions, organising tasks and creative thinking. As an occasional event this can result in a cranky child, in the long term, lack of sleep can severely affect their mood, result in poorer school performance or impair their immune system.

What might surprise you is lack of sleep can also have an impact on children’s physical health. According to Associate Professor Honey Heussler from the University of Queensland, children who consistently do not get enough sleep are more likely to have poor growth or excessive weight gain.

One study showed that children with consistent late bedtimes were on average 1.5kg to 2.5kg heavier at follow up three years later than children who regularly went to bed earlier. Children with shorter sleep duration are also more likely to have higher blood pressure, suggesting that sleep may be a potential risk factor for hypertension later in life.

Health and Wellbeing Queensland Chief Executive, Robyn Littlewood said given one in four Queensland children are overweight or obese, understanding the importance of sleep is integral in breaking this pattern.

“Establishing good routines, and ensuring our kids are getting the right amount of sleep ensures they will have the very best chance of maintaining a healthy weight for the years ahead” said Robyn.

So exactly how much sleep do our children need?

According to Associate Professor Heussler, children need more sleep than adults—on average this should be 9-12 hours for primary school children and 8-11 hours for high-schoolers.

Sleep requirements vary, depending on children’s developmental stages: a general guide is below.

Age and recommended sleep hours per 24-hour period

Infants: 4 to 12 months—12 to 16 hours (including naps)
Toddlers: 1 to 2 years—11 to 14 hours (including naps)
Pre-schoolers: 3 to 5 years—10 to 13 hours (including naps)
Grade-schoolers: 6 to 12 years—9 to 11 hours
Teens: 13 to 18 years—8 to 10 hours

Source: Children’s Health Queensland

‘These are just guidelines and some children need more sleep than others’, said Honey. ‘Keep an eye on how your child is functioning throughout the day: daytime fatigue is a good indicator of whether a child is getting enough sleep’ said Honey.

‘The most effective way to encourage the correct amount of sleep is to establish a consistent bedtime routine and stick to it every night.’

Here are our tips for creating a routine bound to set children up for a restful night.

Before bed

  • If your child needs to wake up at a certain time for school or day care, set a bedtime that will allow them to achieve the required amount of sleep. The 30-60 minutes prior to bedtime should be used for ‘winding down’. Fill this time with activities that prepare your child for sleep such as bathing, teeth cleaning, story time, or reading by themselves. It is best to avoid exercise or stimulating play in the hour before bedtime as this can make it harder for children to calm down and prevent them from feeling sleepy. Also, avoid electronic devices during this time as the bright light or the LED lights can reduce the evening levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, making it more difficult to fall asleep. There is also the problem of getting too engaged in the videos or games at this time delaying bedtime.

During sleep

  • Take note of the sleeping environment: is it comfortable, dark and quiet? Use block out curtains if the room is bright and play soothing gentle music if children prefer to sleep with background noise. Children’s bedrooms should be set up as a space solely for sleep as opposed to study or play, where possible. This will take away the possible distraction of toys or lights and it will also assist children in making the subconscious association between their bedroom and sleep.
  • Living in Queensland, we have all experienced the nights where we can’t sleep because it’s just too hot! Research shows the ideal temperature for encouraging restful sleep is around 17 to 19 degrees Celsius. Good ventilation or free flowing air through a fan can work a treat.

In the morning

  • Encourage your children to wake up at the same time every day—even on weekends and holidays. This will ensure their body clock can stay in the routine.
  • Incorporate daily daytime exercise and time in the natural sunlight, particularly in the morning, as this can improve a child’s ability to fall asleep at night.
  • Encourage a healthy diet in line with the Australian Guide for Healthy Eating, as consuming all of the essential nutrients will give your child the best chance at having a restful sleep during the night.

For teenagers

Associate Professor Heussler said when it came to supporting kids to get to sleep, there were different methods to try for teenagers compared to their younger siblings, as teenagers have biological and often social reasons for delaying sleep onset.
“The tips provided for younger children definitely still apply for teenagers, however they can often be harder to implement as teenagers have more autonomy over their night-time routine,” said Honey.

“Discuss the importance of sleep with teenagers and work with them to brainstorm some ways to increase their nightly hours of sleep. This may mean looking at their schedule and planning sleep around classes, training sessions, homework and social activities.”

“A big one for teenagers is the avoidance of stimulants like coffee, tea, soft drink and energy drinks, as these can keep them awake at night, even when consumed in the early afternoon,” said Honey.

When to see a doctor

Whilst establishing a healthy sleep pattern can go a long way in promoting restful sleep for children and teenagers, there can sometimes be underlying circumstances which prevent children from sleeping or feeling rested during the day. If you are concerned, see your GP to discuss other ways you can support good sleep habits.

Most sleep routines can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to months for children to get used to, however once a routine is set it will be invaluable in supporting the restful sleep that children need to perform at their best and get the most out of their days.