Although every child is different, there are average sleep requirements for children Most preschool children need between 10 and 13 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. Over the elementary years sleep requirements may begin to lessen somewhat, only to lengthen again as children experience growth spurts and the social and emotional demands of pre-adolescence.
Generally, 3-year-old children will still need a nap or regular resting time each day. Most often naps/resting periods are best begun between 12:30-1:30pm which allows for lunch and a brief time of mini-ritual transition—perhaps a story– and may last 1-2 hours. For children near the age of 4, the need for a nap may diminish. Parents are often familiar with the experience of children dropping a nap from earlier developmental stages when infants or toddlers went from 3 to 2 naps or from 2 naps to 1.
Most active children need a rest period each day: for some, until the age of six. The rest period may entail some quiet activity such as reading a book, listening to music or some minimally demanding physical activity such as snap together blocks or puzzles. This quiet allows for the possibility of sleep but does not demand that the child nap.
Lack of sleep for children may result in noticeable moodiness or irritability (as it does with adults.) In addition to these emotional cues, a person who needs more sleep may express a variety of cognitive and self-regulation difficulties. For example,
- Inability to make any decision
- It’s now too hard to choose my pj’s or which book to read.
- This may also be noted by the inability to make good choices about getting along with others.
- Outbursts (crying, physical aggression, or verbal aggression) that seem unnecessary or have no apparent cause. This is especially true if it is near a resting time or going to sleep at night.
- Need for physical closeness to a parent or a special transition object (stuff animal, pacifier, blanket, etc.)
- Excessive activity.
- For some high active children, the more tired they become the more wound-up they become.
Children who get a high energy “second wind”, may have missed the window of time in which they could have more easily transitioned to sleep.
How to Help:
What parents can do to help establish a new sleeping pattern for preschool children so that get enough rest.
- Talk about what sleep does for our bodies (When we sleep, our bodies are able to grow big and strong. When we don’t sleep enough, people get cranky and our bodies don’t work right.)
- Talk about everyone that child knows and that they sleep too (and perhaps talk about where they sleep).
- Decide, with the help and input of your child, on a nighttime ritual. Because every family and child is different, what works for one family or child may not be the best for another.Many families pick several different ideas to be part of the ritual. Here are some suggestions:
- Take a bath
- Put pajamas on (an external cue to the child)
- Talk about the best part of the day while lying in bed
- Read a book (about 15-30 minutes)
- Turn on soothing music (maybe a lullaby CD from when s/he was a baby, ocean noises, whale songs, chants, “white” noise—like a fan.
- Sing a song or two (the same ones each night are best unless the child picks a different song)
- Dim lights
- Lay down with your child or sit beside the bed with them for a few minutes (this can be invite co-sleeping for very tired parents!)
- Have a small quiet signal of when the parent will leave (a timer, at the end of the song.)
One of the major pitfalls that may occur is when a child keeps asking for “one more” thing (another story, song, minute, glass of water, etc.) Parents must realize that by giving in to the child’s request, they have just rewarded the behavior, and the child will expect the same treatment the next time.
Although it is REALLY hard for parents, the best thing that can be done for both child and parent is to say, “You want another story. Is that right?” PAUSE. “I understand that reading is a lot of fun. How many stories do we get to read at bedtime?” PAUSE FOR ANSWER AND EITHER “That’s right. How many stores have we read?” PAUSE OR “The rule is that we read __ stories at bedtime. Which story would you like for me to read after breakfast?” PAUSE “You help remind me when you wake up in the morning which story you want to read. Goodnight.”
Although the above scenario might not EXACTLY fit your situation, the keys are
- To acknowledge your child’s wants and feelings
- Remind about what the rule is (This is best if the child will say what the rule/routine is.)
- Plan a future time when “it” can happen (And follow through!!!) and ask the child’s help in this
- DO NOT give in or the “one more thing” becomes part of the ritual.
Elementary children have social and emotional issues related to classmates, homework and other school challenges. This means that parental help may continue to include calming and connecting rituals, but perhaps be enhanced by adding more mature mind-body strategies. Teaching basic breathing techniques for body awareness and to release muscle tension, or adding brief discussions which focus on the best of the day, will help to set a calmer tone for sleep. The newest culprit contributing to children being unable to transition to sleep is too much exposure to the lighting of computer, tablets and phone screens. The light waves from these tools (called blue light, but not perceived as blue when looking at it) disrupts the brain’s ability to transition to sleep. It is recommended that access to these screens end 2 hours before bedtime.
Ideally, the time for sleep rituals should not be hurried. This challenges parents to consider how siblings share in end of day rituals. Further, after school activities may contribute to a sense of hurry that disrupts children’s ability to transition to sleep and wake rested on their own the next morning.
Will it work?
Although it takes times, it will work. Will this be easy? Not at first, the longer a child goes without an external routine to help in setting a body clock for wake and sleep, the harder it is to start one. After about 2-3 weeks, both child and parent will become more accustomed to “the rules” and things will begin to flow more easily. Remember that children are always growing and changing. This means that children will occasionally test the boundaries, and in some cases, adjustments in the routine will have to be made based on the child’s new stage of development. In addition, sleep disturbances may occur when children are going through a cognitive growth spurt, are coming down with an illness or have disruption in other parts of their day. Once well-developed sleep patterns are in place brief disruptions may occur and children quickly return to the “normal” that has been established.
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