By Nathalie Vallerand
For many children, sleep doesn’t come easily. Some become expert bedtime stallers, while others wake up several times a night. What’s more, today’s children sleep slightly less on average than previous generations.
Over the last few decades, sleep duration has declined in both adults and children. Studies have shown that children are sleeping 30 to 60 minutes less a day. That might not sound like much, but it’s enough to affect things like mood, attention span, and memory.
“Children are going to bed later than before, but their wake-up time hasn’t changed, which means they’re sleeping less,” says Dr. Dominique Petit, a research professional at the Center for Advanced Research in Sleep Medicine at the Hôpital du Sacré-Cœur de Montréal. “When bedtime goes past 9 p.m., children take longer to fall asleep and wake up more often during the night.”
Why is bedtime getting later? In many families, both parents work. As a result, dinner and bedtime are pushed back.
“Some parents also feel guilty putting their child to bed instead of spending time with them,” says Dr. Petit. “As a result, they may be less strict about bedtime.” What’s more, evenings are often packed with activities. While these may not directly involve your child, they might be keeping other family members very busy, affecting your little one’s schedule.
“When a child’s meal times and bedtime are irregular, their routine is constantly being disrupted—and routine is very important for their sleep,” explains Dr. Jennifer McGrath, a psychology professor at Concordia University who conducts sleep research.
Plus, when a child does activities in the evening, outside of daylight hours, they’re more exposed to artificial light, which can disrupt their circadian rhythm. Consequently, they may have trouble regulating their sleep schedule.
Light from screens (e.g., computers, tablets, cellphones, TVs) can also affect a child’s circadian rhythm, stimulate their brain, and reduce their sleep time. One American study showed that children aged 3 to 5 who watch TV after 7 p.m. are more likely to have trouble sleeping. “Screen time in the evening pushes back bedtime, delays the child’s sleep, and increases night wakings,” says Dr. McGrath.
Common sleep problems
According to Dr. Evelyn Constantin, a pediatrician and director of the Montreal Children’s Hospital sleep laboratory, 25 percent of children have sleep issues.“The rate can be as high as 90 percent in children with a developmental delay, ADHD, autism, or cerebral palsy,” she says.
Difficulty going to bed
“I’m too hot,” “I’m thirsty,” “I need to pee,” “I want another hug” . . . Some children are very creative when it comes to delaying bedtime! Between the ages of 2 and 5, many children develop what’s known as bedtime resistance.
“It’s normal for your child to try to keep you around for as long as possible,” says Dr. Petit. “But giving in can shorten their sleep time. It’s in everyone’s best interests to set clear boundaries, as insufficient sleep can significantly impact your child’s development.”
Difficulty falling asleep
On average, it takes children 30 minutes to fall asleep. If your child takes longer to drift off, they may not be going to bed at the right time. A child who goes to bed too late may be agitated and have trouble sleeping, especially if they’re overtired. But if they go to bed too early, their body won’t be ready for sleep.
To help your child fall asleep quickly and easily, it’s best to follow a sleep schedule that aligns with their natural circadian rhythm and to have a stable bedtime routine. To ensure that your child’s nap doesn’t affect their night sleep, make sure they have at least four hours of wake time before bed, especially if they’re aged 3 or older.
Difficulty falling back to sleep alone
Children aged 1 to 3 wake up three times a night on average. They’ll usually wake up for a few seconds and then go back to sleep.
However, night wakings can become problematic if the child starts crying, calling for their parents, or getting out of bed every time they wake up. At that point, they’re agitated and won’t be able to fall back to sleep right away. When this kind of waking happens frequently, it can lead to a decrease in nighttime sleep. Often, this situation occurs when a child is used to falling asleep with a parent present.
Éloïm’s parents know this from personal experience! The 2-year-old’s mother used to always lie down with him until he fell asleep. She enjoyed their little ritual—but not the night wakings. “He’d wake up two or three times a night and need his mom to fall back to sleep,” says Étienne, Éloïm’s father.
Helping your child fall asleep at night lets them know that you’re there for them. But over time, they may start to associate your presence with going to sleep. That means they’ll always need your help to fall back to sleep.
One of the main differences between a good sleeper and a bad sleeper is the ability to go back to sleep without help. You and your child will both get more sleep if you teach them how to fall asleep on their own.
That’s what Éloïm’s parents are trying to do. “At bedtime, we read him a story and then tell him we’ll be back to check on him soon,” says Étienne. “Often, he falls asleep before we come back. The best part is, he’s getting better at putting himself back to sleep at night.” To avoid having the same issue with their youngest, 8-month-old Anaël, the couple always puts him in bed awake.
One American study suggests that some 41 percent of parents with children under age 18 sleep less than 7 hours a night. Meanwhile, parents with a child under age 2 are likely to sleep only 5 to 6 hours a night. This has a profound impact on parents’ well-being. “Sleep deprivation can even damage a parent’s relationship with their child and partner,” says Dr. Petit.
Insufficient sleep has also been linked to an increase in depressive symptoms in both mothers and fathers. According to some researchers, it’s not the frequency of night wakings that causes parents stress; it’s the fear that their child might have a sleep disorder. Parents who sleep poorly also tend to overestimate their child’s sleep problems.
Other sleep issues
Lytycya, age 5, used to snore in her sleep. But when her father, Éric, realized that she would sometimes stop breathing for a few seconds, he got worried. At the hospital, Lytycya was diagnosed with sleep apnea, a condition that affects 1 to 5 percent of children. “If your child snores, breathes through their mouth, or momentarily stops breathing while they sleep, they should be seen by a doctor,” says Dr. Constantin.
Other common sleep disorders include night terrors, teeth grinding, and sleep walking or talking. They’re usually not serious and often resolve on their own. However, if they happen several times a week for several weeks, it’s best to have your child seen by a doctor.