Research shows the overwhelming majority of parents think their kids’ sleep is important for both the children’s health and mood and for their own health and mood, too. But that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to get little ones on their way to dreamland.
That same research, a 2014 survey on the sleep habits of American families conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, found that as many as 26 percent of parents estimated their kids got at least one hour less than the ideal amount of sleep. That's an alarming trend, according to pediatrician Harvey Karp, author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block.
"Sleep is as important as good food," he told The Huffington Post. "You don’t want junky sleep just like you don’t want junky food."
The evidence: Studies have linked insufficient sleep in children to behavioral problems, impaired learning and school performance, mood and emotional problems, and obesity. With the National Sleep Foundation recommending between 10 and 13 hours of sleep for 3- to 5-year-olds and nine to 11 hours of sleep for 6- to 12-year-olds, how do you make sure your kid is sleeping sweet? Here's what the experts say should be top priority when it comes to kids' slumber:
1. Stick To A Bedtime Routine
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Routines are the way kids tell time throughout the day before they learn how to read a clock, according to Karp.
Knowing that one thing follows the next gives them a sense of security, and helps their bodies understand when it’s time for what -- like when it’s time for sleep. One study
that surveyed mothers of more than 10,000 children across Australia, Canada, China, India, Japan, Singapore, the U.K. and the U.S., found that a bedtime routine was consistently associated with better sleep outcomes. Such kids tended to go to bed earlier, spend a shorter amount of time falling asleep, wake up fewer times through the night and sleep longer overall.
Bedtime routines should help gradually transition kids from their daytime activities to sleep, Karp said. Try turning down the lights earlier in the evening, he suggested. And skip the wrestling contests and running around. Pick activities like reading books or telling bedtime stories instead. “It’s hard for kids to go from 60 miles per hour back down to zero in just a few minutes,” he said.
2. Avoid Screens Before Bedtime
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The evidence is stacked against the use of any type of device before bed
when it comes to adults, and the same goes for kids, research shows. One study
in 612 children between 3 and 5 had more trouble sleeping the more TV they watched after 7 p.m.
Overall, more screen time throughout the day was associated with more sleep problems, but evening screen time (after 7 p.m.) had a greater negative impact on sleep than screen time earlier in the day.
One of the problems with screens, Karp said, is that the artificial light that comes from our devices is blue light, which actually interferes with the release of the hormone melatonin that signals to the body that it’s time for sleep -- and that can mean a lot of tossing and turning under the covers.
3. Keep Moving All Day Long
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Karp says a good night’s sleep actually begins first thing in the morning: “Whether or not you get a good night’s sleep depends on everything you do throughout the day, including getting exercise.”
One European study
that compared daytime activity of 519 7-year-olds with the time it took them to fall asleep found that each hour of sedentary behavior throughout the day added three minutes on average to the time it took the kids to fall asleep.
4. Make healthful food choices
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What you eat affects sleep -- simple as that. And fiber is one of the most important nutrients to pay attention to, Karp explained. Kids who do not get enough fiber throughout the day tend to have more constipation, which can cause discomfort and fitfulness at night, he said.
And of course, though it may go without saying, avoid too much sugar or caffeine, especially later in the day. Sugar causes a rise and fall in insulin levels that can leave anyone feeling wired or jittery. And when it comes to caffeine, keep in mind that some kids can be quite sensitive, Karp said, and even small amounts can throw off nighttime sleep.
5. Have A Bedtime Snack
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If kids are sleeping though the night, the gap between dinner and breakfast can be as long as half a day -- which is a while to go without food, especially for young kids who are growing and burning energy, Karp said. Pick a high-protein snack that will help thwart a growling stomach that might wake a little one up through the night. The body takes longer to digest protein, which means it will release that energy more slowly throughout the night.
Karp's favorite picks: peanut or almond butter on a piece of fruit or crackers, milk, or a small portion of chicken.
Sarah DiGiulio is The Huffington Post’s sleep reporter. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that Dr. Harvey Karp recommended chicken soup as bedtime snack. He recommends a small portion of chicken.