This article was originally published in Family Matters magazine and has been republished here with their permission.
Sleep is the holy grail of parenting. It bonds new parents together as they wearily commiserate about their lack of it; and pulls couples apart during yet another 2:00 a.m. argument over “whose turn it is.” But what happens after those newborn years when a good night’s sleep is still elusive? What do parents do when their two year old, or even ten year old, is still not sleeping well?
WHY IS SLEEP SO IMPORTANT?
Dr. Penny Corkum is a clinical child and school psychologist, and a professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience at Dalhousie University. Her research focuses on children’s sleep and how sleep and mental health are connected. She says that while much research has been done on adult sleep problems, there has been comparatively little done on children’s sleep. Corkum says most of what they know is correlational, such as children who sleep less tend to struggle more in school and have behavioural problems. Some of her recent work has gone deeper and included sleep manipulation studies where children have their sleep restricted by as little as an hour and then have daytime functioning tested.
“After four nights of this … we were able to demonstrate that they actually had difficulties with things like memory, paying attention, emotional regulation; they actually changed how they viewed pictures — they tended to see things in a less positive light,” Corkum says. “We’re really concerned because this is a period when their brains are developing and skills are developing, and the impact that might have on the developing child could potentially be even more problematic as an adult.”
Corkum says insomnia is the biggest sleep problem for children.
“Insomnia is difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking too early in the morning,” she explains, and says if a child has the same sleep problem for three times a week, for three months or more, it may be worth looking into professional help.
SETTING UP FOR SLEEP SUCCESS
Corkum says a parent’s best defense is intervening as early as possible and she suggests starting with a predictable, calm bedtime routine.
“Consistent bedtimes and wake times are really critically important, so there should not be a lot of variety from weekend to weekday… in a younger child you don’t want to vary more than 30 minutes,” she says.
A bedtime routine should take about half an hour. Keeping activities quiet and dimming the lights in the child’s room as they get ready will keep the focus on moving towards the goal of sleep.
Corkum believes that the most significant factor creating sleep problems today is one that most parents are guilty of as well.
“The big, big one in today’s society, that research is showing to have a huge impact, is electronics in the bedroom,” Corkum says.
Electronics can be problematic for three reasons. First of all they are tempting for kids to stay up late using them; secondly the use of them has been proven to be very stimulating, which defeats a calm routine; and, third, the light that they emit can affect melatonin production and throw off circadian rhythms which can interfere with the child’s ability to fall asleep.
Corkum says that if parents stick to a routine and set up family rules to park electronics before bed these are great first steps on the path to better sleep for all.
In the new year Dr. Corkum will be involved in a new Canadian study about children's sleep that will be accepting local participants.