Sleep Challenges, Part Two: Childhood And Middle Childhood

There are lots of transitions in kids sleep patterns and habits, including big ones that happen during the toddler years. That said, there are also critical changes that occur during childhood and middle childhood (I’m focusing here on 5 – 11 years of age). Most importantly, this is a developmental period where the consequences of sleep deprivation can be especially harmful. So the 2nd installment of my three-part series on sleep challenges focuses on childhood and middle childhood. 

What are the expectations? The biggest issue is that kids are in school for a good part of the year and as such are expected to have consistent sleep schedules that provide sufficient sleep to handle their cognitive, social, and emotional load. Kids between 5 and 11 years old should be getting between 10 and 11 hours of solid sleep every night, with consistent bedtimes and wake-up times. They also should not be tired during the day.

What are the challenges? Let’s start with the biggest challenge – understanding how much sleep your child actually needs and the negative consequences of not getting it. It’s troubling that study after study reports most kids get less sleep than they need – typically 1 hour less per night than is suggested. Add to this the observation from new studies that many kids get inconsistent sleep that can vary greatly from night to night. Such irregular sleep patterns have been shown to lead to substantial metabolic changes that promote risk for obesity and diabetes. And recent scientific reports – such as one that I flagged as one of the most influential studies of 2011 – have shown that sleep deprivation can have accumulating negative effects on cognitive development in childhood during key ages for learning (e.g., from 2nd grade through 4th grade). The culprits that undermine sleep can be many, including a lack of careful supervision of kids’ sleep habits, TV and electronics being available at bedtime (especially in the bedroom), increasing activities outside of school, and increasing time demands after school (such as homework).

How should you handle these challenges? We don’t typically think that sleep needs to be monitored in bigger kids like it does when we are dealing with babies or toddlers. But this isn’t true – in fact kids’ increasing independence screams out for parental monitoring given the sleep epidemic these days and the very real and serious consequences of sleep deprivation. A good start is to become familiar with the signs of sleep deprivation in children, which include the following

  • being very hard to wake-up on a consistent basis
  • sometimes falling asleep much earlier than usual
  • falling asleep frequently in the car
  • hearing from observers (such as teachers) that they seem tired, are yawning a lot, etc

If your child is showing some of these behaviors, it may be time to monitor their sleep habits more closely. Work backwards from when they need to get up and the amount of sleep they require to set a firm bedtime. Limit use of electronics before bedtime (maybe follow at a minimum a 30-minute rule – all technology gets shut down 30 minutes before bedtime). Promote reading as a good form of winding down. And try to be vigilant to make sure your child gets consistent sleep during the week – or put another way, try to avoid irregular sleep habits.

Image of sleeping child via Shutterstock.com

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