toddler care

How to encourage your child to develop patterns to their sleep

Getting a good night’s sleep at an early stage aids and promotes child growth and development

Why getting a good night’s sleep is important for young children

We explore some of the many reasons young children need to get into a good sleep pattern from a young age

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It is a commonly held ideal that the early establishment of sleep patterns is a major contribution to their development, learning and growth – both physical and emotional.

Encouraging and nurturing good quality sleep in children will allow them to get the best benefit from an early age. Rather than something that just happens naturally, the ‘achievement’ of sleep is a learned skill which as far as children are concerned will release hormones that encourage normal growth, mental and physical development.

Secondly the brain benefits, by boosting concentration. Good quality sleep enables children to make sense of the day’s events, the things they learn at nursery and the skills they are developing as they grow. 

Thirdly, healthy brain development and emotional and mental health are encouraged by the ‘de-toxifying’ benefits of good sleep.

Recent scientific research has also shown the damaging effect on children and young adults who get less sleep than they need - from weight gain to depression, from poor performance and concentration to reduced creative ability and lower immunity to diseases. At a time when the stresses and pressures of the modern world are increasingly leading to decreased sleep times. Experts say that parents need to be aware of the potential long term harm of a child not getting enough sleep and not adopting good sleep habits from an early age. 

The sleep cycle 

During sleep our heart rate drops, our body temperature falls and we experience complex changes in brain activity.

Sleep can be helpfully divided into ‘blocks’ – each one involving a series of events during sleep. These blocks can also be expressed as time periods i.e. the amount of sleep in hours achieved by people of all ages. The events during rest and sleep will include wakefulness, sleepiness and different levels of sleep. The two main ingredients of sleep are ‘slow wave’ (non-dreaming) and REM – rapid eye movement/dreaming sleep. Both are essential as they contribute to repair of wear and tear, healthy hormone activity, normal growth and emotional wellbeing. 

Normal sleep should involve about three to five periods of dreaming sleep (about 25% of total sleep time) per night. Interestingly, dreams and REM sleep are triggered by random releases of electrical activity by a part of the brain called the ‘stem’ – this is received by the forebrain which then desperately tries to ‘make sense’ of it all – this is why children often refer to daily activities or experience in school in their dreams, finding a ‘reference’ they can relate to. This process is vital for good brain health and emotional development.

To ensure a small child experiences good sleep it is essential that they follow good lifestyle habits and that any factors that are causing disturbed sleep are eliminated. For example, making sure that a child’s bedroom has the right environment to help encourage sleep, looking at factors such as the lighting, and making sure that he or she avoids the foods and drinks that can hinder sleep.

There are a number of basic principles that can help to create the right environment and circumstances to encourage sleep:

1.Consistency is key. Going to bed and getting up at the same time helps to strengthen a child’s body clock.

2. Give the child a familiar wind down before bedtime every night, ie TV off, do some quiet activities (jigsaws), supper, bath, pyjamas on, teeth brushing, story and then bed.

3. Turn off all screens (including TV) an hour before bed.

4. Dim the lights, close the curtains, and create some darkness to help to promote melatonin (the sleep hormone).

5. Consider introducing supper time. Slow releasing carbohydrates like a few spoons of porridge or half a Weetabix can help to keep little tummies full. Dairy products are also very calming at night. Avoid anything with sugar.

6. Baths are great if a child finds them relaxing. Ideally these should take place at least 30 minutes before bedtime as this aids relaxation by increasing body temperature. It is the slow decrease in body temperature that helps a child to feel more relaxed and ready for bed.

7. Children’s sleep times can vary so parents should not feel anxious if their child isn’t asleep by a set time. As long as they are lying down and are quiet, it’s promoting a relaxing environment.

8. If a child can’t sleep, parents should not be tempted to get him or her back out of bed. Instead the child should be encouraged to be quiet and lie down – this again helps to promote a relaxing environment.

9. Try not to get cross with a child if they’re refusing to go to sleep. This aggravates the situation and doesn’t aid the relaxing atmosphere before bed. This isn’t to say you should let them get away with doing what they like –  be firm but in control.

10. Consider a child’s sleeping environment. Make sure it’s cool, quiet and dark and ensure they are sleeping on a comfortable, supportive bed.

How to encourage your child to develop patterns to their sleep