For many children, sleep doesn’t come easily. Some become expert bedtime stallers; others wake up several times during the night.
For many children, sleep doesn’t come easily. Some become expert bedtime stallers; others wake up several times during the night. The bottom line is that children now sleep slightly less, on average, than previous generations.
Over the past few decades, both adults and children have started sleeping less. Studies show that children now sleep from 30 to 60 minutes less per day. That might not seem much, but it’s enough to affect mood, attention span and memory.
“Children are going to bed later than before, but their wake-up time has remained the same. This means they’re sleeping less,” notes Dominique Petit, researcher with the Center for Advanced Research in Sleep Medicine at the Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montréal. “Furthermore, many go to bed too late. When bedtime is later than 9 p.m., children take longer to fall asleep and wake up more frequently during the night.”
So, why have bedtimes become later? In many families, both parents work. As a result, this delays suppertime and then bedtime. “As well, some parents feel guilty for putting their children to bed instead of spending more time with them,” Petit adds. “They therefore tend to be less strict about bedtime.” Not to mention that evenings are often filled with all sorts of activities. Your toddler may not yet participate in any, but the busy schedule of other family members can have an impact on her.
“When meal and bed times are not regular, it affects the routine, and routine is crucial for a child’s sleep,” explains Concordia University psychology professor Jennifer McGrath, who has led research into sleep. Moreover, the more activities are done out of daylight hours, the more children are exposed to artificial lighting in the evening, which affects their rhythm. Your child may therefore have more trouble settling into her sleep schedule based on daylight and darkness.
Light from screens (computer, tablet, cell phone, TV) also affects a child’s rhythm in addition to stimulating the brain and reducing sleep time. An American study showed that children between the ages of 3 and 5 who watch television after 7 p.m. have more sleep troubles. “Access to screens in the evening delays bedtime, increases the time it takes to fall asleep and causes more night waking,” McGrath adds.
Common sleep problems
According to Evelyn Constantin, pediatrician and co-director of the Montreal Children’s Hospital Sleep Laboratory, 25 % of children have sleep issues. “This can climb up to 90 % among children with a developmental delay, AD(H)D, pervasive developmental disorder or cerebral palsy,” she adds.
Here are the most common sleep-related problems :
“I’m hot ; I’m thirsty ; I have to go potty ; I want another hug…” Some children have great imaginations when it comes to stalling their bedtime! Between ages 2 and 5, many display what’s known as bedtime resistance. “It’s normal that your toddler tries to keep you close for as long as possible,” says Dominique Petit. “But it’s in everyone’s best interests to set clear boundaries.”
Difficulty falling asleep
The average time it takes for a child to fall asleep is generally 30 minutes. If it takes longer than that, it’s because she’s not going to bed at the right time. If it’s too late, the toddler may be more agitated and therefore find it harder to fall asleep, especially if she’s overtired. If it’s too early, on the other hand, her body may not be ready to sleep yet. For a child to fall asleep quickly, it is therefore important to set a schedule that respects her natural rhythm as much as possible, and to have a regular bedtime routine. Plus, there should be about 4 hours difference between naptime and bedtime so that falling asleep isn’t an issue, especially after age 3.
Difficulty falling back asleep alone during the night
Between the ages of 1 and 3, children wake up on average 3 times per night, which is normal and nothing to worry about if they are able to go back to sleep right away. However, it becomes a problem if the child starts crying, calling for her parents or getting up each time she wakes up. This happens most with toddlers who are used to falling asleep with a parent present.
2-year-old Éloïm’s parents know something about this. His mom got into the habit of lying down with him until he fell asleep. An enjoyable moment at bedtime, no doubt, but much less so in the middle of the night. “He would wake up two or three times and need his mom to fall back asleep,” says dad, Étienne.
“If you always stay with your child until she falls asleep, you teach her that she can’t do it without you,” says Dominique Petit. “If she wakes up at night, she’ll call for you.” The difference between a good and bad sleeper is, in part, the ability to fall back asleep alone after waking up. Your child will sleep better, and so will you, if you show her how to go to sleep on her own.
This is what Éloïm’s parents are now trying to do. “At bedtime, we read him a story and then we tell him we’ll return to check on him later,” says Étienne. “Often, he falls asleep before we come back. The great thing is that he’s now more able to fall back asleep on his own during the night.” To make sure they don’t go through all that again with their youngest, 8-month-old Anaël, the couple puts him into bed while he’s still awake.
According to an American study, around 41 % of parents with children under 18 years old sleep less than 7 hours each night. Parents with toddlers under 2 years old, meanwhile, may only get 5 to 6 hours’ sleep per night. This situation has an impact on parents’ well-being. “Sleep deprivation can even affect the parents’ relationship with their child and put strain on the couple,” says sleep specialist Dominique Petit.
Not sleeping enough is also associated with an increase in symptoms of depression among both moms and dads. According to some researchers, it’s not the frequency of night waking that causes parents stress, but rather the idea that their child might have a sleep issue. Parents who sleep poorly also tend to overestimate their child’s sleeping problems.
Other sleep disturbances
5-year-old Lytycya snores when she sleeps. But when her dad, Éric, realized her breathing was also stopping for a few seconds, he got worried. At the hospital, he found out it was sleep apnea, a condition that affects between 1 % and 5 % of children. “If your child snores, breathes through her mouth or has respiratory pauses during the night, you should consult a doctor,” recommends Dr. Evelyn Constantin.
Other common sleep disturbances include night terrors, teeth grinding, sleep walking or sleep talking. These usually aren’t serious and often resolve themselves. However, if they occur several times a week over several weeks, it’s best to seek medical advice.
Source : Naître et grandir magazine, October 2016
Research and copywriting : Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review : Evelyne Martello, clinical nurse, Sleep Disorder Clinic, CIUSSS du Nord-de-l’Île-de-Montréal, Rivière-des-Prairies Hospital
Photo : iStock.com/Bodler