Doctor’s Advice for Helping Your Child Get Enough Rest

Young girl sleeping

From the moment a child is born, his or her parents will likely be flooded with advice about how to manage their child’s sleep. While “sleep when the baby sleeps” sounds like wise advice, many parents still struggle with bedtimes. As a pediatrician and mother of four, Joelle McConlogue, MD, has learned a lot about what really works for children and sleep. Here, she reveals some tips to help families get the rest they need.




 

Dr. McConlogue, a pediatrician with Stanford Children’s Health, explained that getting enough sleep is especially important for children because there is so much growth during those early years. “There’s a tremendous amount of change that occurs during the childhood years,” she said. Proper sleep is necessary to support children’s physical and emotional development, not to mention the downtime helps them process daily experiences and new skills learned.

Although the amount of sleep needed changes with the passing years, even teens need a significant amount of sleep. “It starts in early childhood with sleeping most of the time, anywhere from 18 to 20 hours a day, and then slowly decreases,” she said. “Even adolescents need about eight-and-a-half to nine hours of sleep a day.”

Dr. McConlogue outlined some signs of sleep deprivation that parents should watch out for:

  • Falling asleep in class.
  • Having a hard time waking up.
  • Feeling groggy during the day.
  • Emotional changes like irritability or crankiness.

That said, one question on many parents’ minds is how to get a child to go to sleep. One way to make the shift a little easier is to start building a bedtime routine. “Having a consistent routine will impact both the quality and quantity of sleep,” Dr. McConlogue said. “Our bodies tend to like routine, and the body needs a time when it knows it’s going to wind down.”

Bedtime routines don’t need to be long or complicated. For babies and younger children, a warm bath before getting into pajamas, reading a book, or singing a song can be enough to lull your child to sleep at night. Older kids and teens might enjoy listening to soothing music or reading.

The most important part is having a consistent bedtime and routine. Kids can settle more easily when they know what to expect. “When kids have different bedtimes—staying up late one night and going to bed early the next—sometimes it makes it difficult to get that routine, regular sleep,” Dr. McConlogue explained. Getting up at the same time is also important. Try to keep their wake-up time the same, even on weekends. Naps are a good way to fit in extra sleep for kids who need more rest, rather than sleeping in.

Parents should also be aware of the impact of extended screen time on their child’s sleep. Too much screen time, particularly before bed, can disrupt natural sleep rhythms. “This has been a big issue during the pandemic because our children and teens are spending so much more time on screens,” she said. “We’ve seen an increase in stress, anxiety, and depression, all of which can impact sleep.” Instead of screen time, Dr. McConlogue recommends that parents switch to a calming activity about an hour before bed.

There is a great deal of focus on sleep for infants and young children, but teenagers are also vulnerable to disrupted sleep. With the ongoing pandemic, keeping to a routine is challenging, not to mention the lack of typical activities such as sports and group events. “One of the things we’ve lost with being at home is routine,” Dr. McConlogue said.

It is common for adolescents to have wakeful nights or trouble falling asleep. That is why tweens and teens can still benefit from maintaining a bedtime routine. “Even with our older kids, I encourage parents to just stop by their room and sit on the bed for a few minutes,” she said. “Bedtime is a time often when children are more willing to cuddle and talk. It can be a really sweet time for parents and children to connect if they take the time.”

Dr. McConlogue encourages parents to think of bedtime as an opportunity instead of a chore that needs to be done. Enjoying some calm, quiet time together can be a nice bonding experience. “Being a parent myself, I know this so well,” she said. “Bedtime can be so hard, and it can be a struggle, but if you put the time and the effort into trying to set those routines, it can also be a really nice time in the busyness of our lives to just connect for five to 10 minutes with our kids.”

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