Ten Top Tips for Parents - Tackling Sleep Problems in Children and Teens
As a parent, when you child experiences sleep difficulties, this can not only be worrying but stressful and frankly exhausting! Sleep difficulties are common for both young children and teenagers. Whether it's difficulty settling down and getting to sleep or frequent waking in the night, understanding and addressing these issues is crucial for both your child's well-being and for your peace-of-mind.
Here are some top tips for you to help your child or teenager get a good night's sleep:
1. Recognise the Importance of Sleep
Understand that persistent sleep problems can affect a child's learning and behaviour. Addressing these issues is essential for their overall health and development.
2. Know Your Child's Sleep Needs
The first step is understanding the appropriate amount of sleep for your child's age. How much sleep do children need? As a general guideline:
- Toddlers need about 12-14 hours of sleep (including naps)
- Pre-schoolers (aged 3-5) require 11-12 hours of sleep
- School-age children should aim for 10-11 hours of sleep
- Teenagers need 9-10 hours of sleep
3. Identify the Root Cause
Identifying the root cause of your child’s sleep problem is the key to solving difficulties and improving the situation. Several factors can contribute to sleep problems in children, including separation anxiety, bedtime fears, bad habits, and irregular sleep schedules.
Diet can also cause sleep difficulties, particularly high-fat foods e.g. crisps, cheese, butter and fried food, and drinks containing caffeine such as fizzy drinks, energy drinks hot chocolate and coffee. Remember caffeine can also be present in foods such as chocolate and coffee-flavoured biscuits cakes and desserts. It's important that your child avoids eating high-sugar foods before bedtime as they cause blood sugar levels to spike and then crash. These fluctuating blood sugar levels can cause a restless sleep pattern.
4. Establish a Consistent Sleep Routine
A bedtime routine for children is essential. Creating a regular bedtime routine will signal to your child that it's time to wind down. This routine can include calming activities like a warm bath, a short bedtime story, or quiet time, especially time away from television, computer screens, game consoles and mobile devices. Consistency is key so repeating the winding down routine every night is essential.
5. Address Daytime Sleepiness
As adults, we know that if we don’t get our usual amount of sleep, we feel tired the next day. Your child is the same and this can cause them to nap during the day. The problem is that this in turn can cause difficulties getting off to sleep at night, so you can end up in a cycle of disrupted sleep patterns. Ensuring that your child is getting enough sleep at night to avoid daytime sleepiness is essential, so evaluate their bedtime and address any potential problems affecting their night-time rest.
6. Handle Nightmares and Night Terrors Appropriately
Night terrors are most common between the ages of 3 -8. If your child is having a night terror they may talk, have their eyes open and move about, but they are asleep. Usually, your child will not remember having had a night terror.
When your child has a nightmare it is like a bad dream that they wake up from and usually remember. We can experience nightmares in childhood and adulthood.
Nightmares and night terrors are common but require different approaches. Comfort your child after a nightmare by encouraging them to talk about it. During night terrors, remain calm and wait for the episode to pass without attempting to wake them. If night terrors are occurring at the same time every night you can try waking them before this time, 10 minutes before, for a week, to try and break the cycle.
In most cases, night terrors and nightmare issues get better on their own but having a relaxing bedtime and avoiding stress or anxiety can encourage this. If either persists or if you think the nightmares/night terrors are related to a post-traumatic event, then approach your GP for specialist help.
7. Deal with Sleepwalking Safely
Sleepwalking can occur if a child is overtired, sleep deprived, worried about something or if there is a family history of sleepwalking. It can also be a side effect of some medications. If your child sleepwalks, take precautions to ensure their safety. Use stair gates, lock doors and windows, and remove any potential hazards. Don’t try to wake them as this may promote their ‘fight or flight’ response, and they may injure themselves or you. It’s best to gently encourage them back into bed. Most children eventually outgrow sleepwalking.
8. Teen-Specific Tips
For teenagers, establish consistent bedtimes, limit weekend sleep-ins, encourage pre-bedtime quiet time, discourage daytime napping, promote outdoor activity, restrict the foods/drinks in tip 3 and avoid vigorous exercise close to bedtime.
9. Seek Professional Help if Needed
If sleep problems persist, consult your GP or health visitor for advice. If necessary, they can refer your child to a specialist for a more in-depth assessment.
10. Understand Uncommon Causes
While less common, issues like obstructive sleep apnoea, restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy, and substance misuse can affect sleep. If you suspect an underlying health problem, consult your GP for support.
Remember, every child is unique, and finding the best strategies for your family may take some trial and error. Patience and consistency are key components of establishing healthy sleep habits for children and teenagers alike.
SSS Learning Safeguarding Director