It’s no secret that sleep is one of the foundations for optimal health, both physical and mental. It’s also no surprise that our children need more than us, with babies requiring 14-15 hours of sleep per day, and gradually tapering down to 8-9 hours by the time they are teenagers. When they do not get enough quality sleep, their physical and mental health suffers, so it’s best to build healthy habits as soon as possible. Here are five ways to support optimal sleep patterns in children.
Encourage Physical Activity
While physical activity is important for strength and fitness, here’s another reason to encourage an active lifestyle. A study of over 800 children found that each hour of sedentary activity increased the time it took for them to fall asleep by three minutes, with the average time being 26 minutes. It doesn’t matter whether your children are enrolled in organized sports, or simply play in the yard, park or beach. What matters is finding something enjoyable and sustainable.
Reduce Screen Time
Giving our children electronic devices or turning the TV on seems like an easy way to keep them occupied, but it may lead to poor sleep patterns in the long-term. In a study of over 1700 children, watching TV for over 1.5 hours per day was linked to a reduced sleep duration. If they started to spend more time watching TV during the study period – measured as a rise from less than 1.5 hours to over 1.5 hours – their sleep duration fell too. It is best to limit screen time to less than an hour per day and introduce other evening activities instead.
Cut Down Sugar
It may sound a little cliched to tie sugar with restlessness, but sugary drinks aren’t only an obesity risk factor. Research spanning 12 countries found that children regularly drinking soda had a shorter sleep duration than those who had them less than once a week. While sports drinks were linked to improved sleep, this is most likely caused by higher levels of physical activity.
At any age, our brains require a wide range of nutrients to develop, maintain themselves and produce the neurotransmitters necessary for their functioning. One of these is magnesium, which is known to improve sleep in all ages. Magnesium aids muscle relaxation, and increases melatonin, the sleep hormone, while reducing cortisol, a key stress hormone. Magnesium is found in leafy green vegetables, and some nuts, seeds, beans, grains and types of seafood. However, supplementation may be called for if your children aren’t consuming enough through food; if they are very physically active; or if they are going through a stressful time.
Another important nutrient for brain health is vitamin D. When 940 teenage girls were given high doses of vitamin D, the prevalence of insomnia fell from 15% to 11.3%. This is a relative reduction of almost 25%. It also significantly improved cognitive functions such as memory and focus, which could help your child study more effectively and prevent the need for all-nighters.
Certain herbal medicines may be safe and effective for improving sleep in children. A study of 918 children tested the effects of a valerian and lemon balm combination, to see if they would work for restlessness and trouble sleeping. Valerian is commonly prescribed for stress and insomnia, while lemon balm is a mood lifter. On average, symptoms fell from a moderate/severe grading to “mild” or “absent”, with 80% of children with dyssomnia and 70% of children with restlessness clearly improving.
Depending on the cause, there are many ways you can improve your child’s sleep patterns. Some, such as limiting screen time or sugar intake, can be done on your own in mild cases. It is best to seek the help of a qualified professional in more severe cases or if your child may benefit from in-depth dietary changes, herbs or supplements.
Please reach out to me if you need help implementing these habits in your household or please book an appointment HERE if your family needs more specific support!