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Healthy sleep habits

When it comes to child development, the importance of bedtime should never be underestimated. In fact, a strict and regular routine of uninterrupted sleep is essential to childhood growth and development, according to Dr. James Lee, a BC Children’s Hospital pediatric neurologist who specializes in clinical neurophysiology and sleep medicine.

“At any stage, sleep is essential to optimal functioning during wakefulness and is in fact necessary for survival,” says Dr. Lee. “The important role of sleep in promoting neurodevelopment at least partly explains why sleep time is greatest in the newborn period, when brain development is greatest.”

Newborns spend half of their time sleeping in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is essential to neurodevelopment. 

Sleep stages: The importance of routine

As children age, their rate of brain development drops, as does the time spent in REM sleep. Although it’s important to consider that the amount of sleep a child needs will vary throughout that child’s life, many underestimate just how much sleep children require as they develop.

Teenagers in particular tend to be the most sleep-deprived age group due to their educational, extra-curricular, and social demands. Encourage your teen to follow consistent sleep schedules – including on weekends – to ensure maximum brain development and alertness, advises Dr. Lee.

“As an individual grows from infant to adolescent, there are many expected changes that occur to the natural sleep cycle and to that individual’s sleep needs,” he says. Although each child in one stage may have different needs than the next, it is important to encourage consistency and routine. No matter the age of the child, this is crucial in developing good sleep habits – or sleep hygiene, he says.

Sleep hygiene: Starting young with good habits

Sleep hygiene – the habits and practices that lead to regular, uninterrupted sleep – may not be a part of our everyday lingo, but it’s vital to health and growth. Dr. Lee says there are many simple ways to improve a child’s sleep hygiene. Putting away tablets and phones and turning off video games is essential, he says.

“Encourage avoidance of electronic devices leading up to bedtime, keeping the home darker and quieter in the evening, and promoting calmer, quieter activities before bed,” he recommends. “Keeping a consistent sleep-wake routine and avoiding naps in older children and adolescents are also important parts of maintaining good sleep hygiene.”

Is Your Child Getting Enough Rest?

How, as a parent, do you know if your child is experiencing sleep issues? Children may have daytime problems like excessive sleepiness or falling asleep in unusual or inappropriate situations, like in the classroom, says BC Children’s neurologist Dr. James Lee. More often, however, children may not be sleepy and instead may exhibit signs such as poor academic performance, hyperactivity or irritability.

Daytime symptoms can be caused by poor sleep hygiene, but it may also be caused by disrupted or poor-quality sleep due to obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), insomnia (difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep, or both), and parasomnias (sleep terrors, for instance).

“Look for snoring and difficulty breathing, which are suggestive of OSA,” advises Dr. Lee. “Other symptoms can include excessive moving or sweating at night, and, in severe cases, even poor growth. Complaints of leg discomfort may indicate restless leg syndrome, which can contribute to difficulty sleeping.”

In the end, Dr. Lee advises parents to regard their children’s sleep as the prime regulator – and yardstick – of good health and growth.

“While there is still much that we don’t know about the function of sleep, we do know that it is heavily involved in learning, development, and regulation of many of the body’s endocrine and metabolic functions.”

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