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Building Bridges by Cheryl Dizon-Reynante  

Is your child getting enough sleep?

by Cheryl Dizon-Reynante

“I don’t want to go to school!” cried six-year-old Joey. After struggling to get him to eat his breakfast and get dressed, his mother Tess was almost in tears herself. She and her husband Mark had noticed that this was a pattern. Most mornings since the beginning of the school year, Joey was grumpy in the mornings and complained about going to school. They assumed that he missed his Kindergarten teacher and friends, and that he was having a difficult time adjusting to a full day of school. But Grade 1 started months ago, and mornings were still a struggle. They made sure to put Joey to bed at 9:00 p.m. every night so that by the time the family awoke at 6:00 a.m., he had gotten nine hours of sleep. Plus, to Tess and Mark, he didn’t look tired.

After Joey’s teacher noticed that he was having trouble focusing on the lessons and was sometimes being aggressive with the other kids, they took Joey to see the doctor. After the pediatrician ruled out any appetite or medical concerns, Tess and Mark were surprised when the doctor said that nine hours of sleep per night probably were not enough for Joey. According to the Canadian Sleep Society, school aged children require 10 to 11 hours of sleep per night.

There are two types of sleep, REM (rapid eye movement) or dreaming sleep, and NREM (non-rapid eye movement), which includes deep restorative sleep. Both children and adults need both types to feel fully rested in the morning. If sleep is not long enough or is disrupted during the night, children can experience:

  • trouble concentrating
  • memory difficulties
  • social and behavioural problems (e.g. aggression, trouble sharing)
  • increased chance of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease
  • increased chance of injury and catching viruses

According to Aboutkidshealth.ca, a quick way to assess whether your child (age five to 12) is getting enough sleep is to ask yourself whether:

  • my child falls asleep in less than 20 to 30 minutes of bedtime
  • my child wakes up easily in the morning, at the expected time
  • my child appears well rested during the day
  • my child stays awake without taking a nap during the day (if they have already outgrown naps)
  • my child stays awake during quiet activities, such as car trips and watching television

If you said yes, to all five questions then your child is likely well rested. If not, there are several steps to take to promote health sleep patterns:

  • Prioritize your child’s sleep over extracurricular activities. Although it is great to see kids involved in sports, music, dance and other activities, if there is too much going on during the week, or if they are scheduled too close to bedtime, they could interfere with your child’s well-being.
  • Make sure that your child has a healthy breakfast in the morning and avoids caffeine, which is found in chocolate, soda pop, tea and coffee. If you provide a snack before bedtime, a light carbohydrate snack (e.g. cheese and crackers) or warm milk, which contains the sleep-inducing amino acid tryptophan, will encourage sleep.
  • Regular exercise and exposure to sunlight during the day is important to regulate sleep-wake patterns. Avoid intense exercise at least three hours before sleep because adrenalin and an increase to core body temperature can interfere with sleep.
  • Encourage your children to fall asleep on their own, and make sure that their bedroom is dark, cool, and quiet. If children wake up in the middle of the night, and find that things are exactly the same as when they went to sleep, they will likely fall back asleep quickly. Stay away from methods such as rocking them to sleep or playing music because you and the music will probably not be around at 3:00 in the morning.
  • Eliminate television, video games and other electronics at least two hours before bedtime. The screen light, increased brain activity, and any tension in the body can prolong sleep.
  • Establish a predictable routine. Some parents choose to stick to the Four B’s at night time – Bath, Brush Teeth, Book and Bedtime. On the weekends, make sure your child goes to bed and wakes up around the same time. We sometimes think that allowing them to sleep later will allow them to “catch up” on rest, but does not work in the long run.

After Tess and Mark introduced these steps in their son’s daily routine, they saw results almost immediately. He woke up on his own and his teacher reported that he was doing better at school. They also started to incorporate changes in their own routines and sleep patterns, promoting the family’s health and wellness overall.

Cheryl Dizon-Reynante is a licensed therapist with the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association.