Of the many things that one cannot prepare for in becoming a parent is the lack of sleep that you will experience and your preoccupation with your infant’s sleep. The science, research and understanding about sleep has increased significantly in the last 10 years or so. With the advent of brain scans, sleep studies and the focus on wellbeing more recently we are hearing more and more about sleep and in fact about the lack of it. This is a highly emotive topic for many.
Many children and adults are not getting enough sleep, and this has significant implications for general wellbeing, learning, behaviour and life in general. Pre-schoolers and primary-aged children not getting enough sleep is very concerning.
Clearly children’s sleep needs change as they grow older but certainly having consistent routine prior to bedtime is one of the most critical aspects. Children also need to go to bed when tired (and not overtired) and to fall asleep in bed. This is one of the ways they learn to self-settle in their own cot or bed while awake. The routine prior to bed should be calm and predictable and, just like for adults, should involve no screen time in the wind-down period. Understanding normal sleep development in infants and young children is important and these days there are many books and organisations that can help with this information.
It is quite normal that we all wake during the night in fact around 10 to 15 times, moving between light and deep sleep; this is where we need to be able to resettle ourselves. But the quality of your sleep is determined by other factors. For one, you cannot play sleep catch-up, as oversleeping on the weekend often leaves you feeling more tired, and, for most people, the sleep prior to midnight is the most powerful sleep for repair and enabling deep sleep to occur.
Equally what we do when we wake and during the day has an impact on our night sleep. Sleep expert and psychologist Dr Nerina Ramlakan cautions adults and teens against checking phones if you wake during the night and first thing in the morning. It’s best to take some time to breathe and tune into your own thoughts before picking up technology.
For young children, rest periods during the day are also important, all early learning services now have sleep and rest policies. These incorporate safe sleeping for infants and supervision of children. Many kindergarten-aged children still need a daytime sleep to support night-time sleep and family routines, but even for those who don’t, we believe having ‘quiet time’ after lunch is important. There is good research to support this down time in the middle of the day as time to be alone with your own thoughts, time to think and daydream, process the day, when no other social or physical demands are being made. Learning to rest so the body can recharge is an important life skill. Staff support the children with calm rooms, relaxation music and, for some children, a relaxation object.
There are many great resources about sleep these days, from settling babies and toddlers through to adolescent and adult needs, for example:
- Being Sleep Smart: Improving Safe Sleep and Settling in Early Years Services
- Sleep Foundation: An introduction to the importance of sleep in children and how to help them sleep better
- Royal Children's Hospital: Fact Sheet: Sleep problems for babies and toddlers
Director of ELC Kew