It’s not that complicated. Any article or book that you read on health and overall well-being will focus on one of the big three; Sleeping, Eating, and Exercising. It’s 1 + 1 + 1 equals everything. And of the big three, sleep may be the most critical - especially for children.
In this Article
Why Is Sleep Critical?
We all know why sleep is important, right? It’s not a state secret anymore. Sleep impacts all. For all of us. Sleep improves memory and learning, helps regulate our moods, reduces depression, and boosts our immunity. Lack of sleep can cause grumpiness, a lack of focus, lack of coordination, and weight gain. Many of these symptoms can be confused for ADHD in your children. Our overall, mental and physical health starts with our sleep.
But why is it so critical for children and adolescents?
Well, the brain is still developing, maturing, and it needs its down time. Studies show that we go thru two stages of sleep – multiple times - each night; NREM and REM sleep. REM (rapid eye movement) dominates the sleep cycle for your children. During this phase the brain is active making neurons, creating neural connections and then activating these pathways to make the brain a happy, connected, functioning machine; a learning machine.
But by the time your child is 5 the balance between REM and NREM sleep will have shifted. There will be a 70/30 split and will eventually end up at around 80% NREM and 20% REM by your child’s late teens.
NREM (Non-REM) sleep is when our internal editor or gardener gets to work. During this period the brain is looking at how these neural connections are being used. It strengthens and enforces those connections that seem the most useful. It prunes or weakens those connections that aren’t as consistently used or as helpful. In this way our brains are sculpted each night. It is a type of customization and the reason no two brains are exactly alike. 
In REM sleep your brain is creating.
In NREM sleep your brain is optimizing and pruning.
Creating and editing.
It makes sense that we shift from REM to NREM as we age. The more connections we develop and the more input throughout the day creates more opportunities to streamline. We create the mess during REM and send in the cleaner during NREM. Think of that NREM as the nightly “decluttering” of your brain.
And all of this clean up takes sleep time.
How Much Sleep Does Your Child Need?
You cannot survive on 5 hours of sleep a night. You may think you’re one of the ultra rare breeds that can function on less sleep – but you’re not. Plain and simple. 99% of all adults need 7 – 8 hours of sleep to function optimally.
And your child is no different. They need to sleep. They need to sleep for growth and brain development. They need to sleep for mood regulation. Weight control. Want to keep your child focused in school? Get them to bed on time.
So how much sleep is required?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends the following as a regular sleep pattern per 24 hours:
- 4 – 12 months need 12 – 16 hours of sleep (including naps)
- 1 – 2 yrs. need 11 – 14 hours of sleep (includes naps, yeah for nap!)
- 3 – 5 yrs. need 10 – 13 hours of sleep
- 6 – 12 yrs. need 9 – 12 hours of sleep
- 13 – 18 yrs. need 8 – 10 hours of sleep
However, the key is creating a regular sleep pattern. If you have a special event; no biggie. Your pre-teen has a slumber party and everyone in the house stays up to 3 in the morning – not a big deal. Everyone may be a little cranky in the morning but one late night does not a sleep schedule ruin. Just get back to your normal routine as soon as possible.
A Good Night’s Sleep Starts In The Morning!
Breakfast may be the most important meal of the day for your child but getting some morning sunlight – anywhere from 2 to 10 minutes – may be more important to your child’s health, stress levels, and ability to go to sleep quickly and soundly each night. Get as much sunlight as you can onto your child’s face and their eyes as possible. No staring at the sun. Just get some sunlight. Even on a cloudy day there will be way more photons of light hitting you than you can receive from any inside lighting. So go outside. 
Most people don’t know that the eyes are two parts of our brain. During development your eyes separate from your forebrain. Later, they are re-connected to your brain via the optic nerve. This gives your brain an advance scout. It’s an actual part of the brain – not just connected but a part – that operates outside of the skull and can register events in your environment without coming into direct contact. It wouldn’t be so great if our minds didn’t adjust or react until something came into contact with it.
Exposure to morning light puts the brain on notice. It’s the start of the day. It triggers the timed release of cortisol. Time released cortisol acts as a wake-up signal and helps focus and regulate your child’s attention and energy levels throughout the day. The morning light also sets a timer for the onset of melatonin. Melatonin is the sleepiness hormone that cause us to get sleepy. These two triggers work together to balance and regulate our circadian rhythms or biological clock. A balanced biological clock gets us up and puts us to bed.
Remember, it doesn’t take much. Take a morning walk around the block. Done. Do some stretching in the backyard with your kids. Done. Sit outside and talk. Done. Walk the dog. You get it. Just find the method that works for you. 2 to 5 minutes will do it.
Four Tips To Get Your Child A Better Night’s Sleep
Limit screen time during the day – And yes, this includes TV. Over exposure to screens can disrupt our child’s biological clock not to mention create delays in language, reading, and social skill development. Too much screen time especially late at night has a direct impact on our ability to sleep. It’s hard to get calmed after blasting a few hundred aliens out of the sky.
How much is too much? Well, to start, no TV, computers, gaming or any type of screens within an hour of bedtime. Set some simple rules. In addition to the bedtime rule eliminate all screens during meals and family time. General rules for screen time per day recommended by the AAP are as follows:
- 0 – 18 months – ZERO
- 18 – 24 months – Up to 1 hour a day. Make this viewing a family affair. Ensure your child understands what they are viewing. Don’t use it to distract or occupy your child.
- 2 – 5 years – 1 hour and again make this a family viewing time of high quality appropriate material.
- 5 – 12 years – set consistent rules to follow with a max of 2 – 2 ½ hours. Make sure the screen time does not replace time exercising or doing outside activities. Try and create a balance between healthy meals, exercise, and screen time.
- 12 – 18 years – Focus on media free times like meals, family time and bedtimes over a specific time restriction. It helps to set media free zones.
Create A Good Sleep Environment – Keep it dark and cold. It’s not a setting for a horror movie but we sleep better when the temperatures drop and the light is gone. It’s a final signal to the body to release more melatonin.
Be Consistent – Shoot for the same bedtime each night. The body recognizes signals. Light is a signal to get up or go to bed. So at night we want it dark. Turning off all media, brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, tucking them in, putting your child to bed at the same time each day will create patterns the body will recognize. Sleep will come easier.
Your Child’s Bed Is For Sleeping – No homework in bed, no eating, no gaming, no watching TV. Especially no talking on the phone in bed. Train your child that the bed is for sleeping and you’ll make every night a little easier. They will associate the bed with going to sleep.
Summary – for everyone that likes to skip to the bottom
- Sleep is critical for your child’s development both mentally and physically. Sleep is the foundation for a strong immune system and overall health.
- Our sleep cycles are comprised of two types of sleep; REM and NREM.
- During REM sleep your child’s brain is building and creating neurons and neural connections.
- During NREM sleep your child’s brain is optimizing and strengthening the most useful connections and eliminating the ones that are not helpful.
- REM creates. NREM edits.
- Sleep required starts at 16 hours per day for new borns and gradually reduces to 8 – 10 hours for teenagers.
- A good night’s sleep starts in the morning. Get some sunlight with your child every morning.
- Four Tips for a good night sleep – Limit screen time, create a good sleep environment, be consistent with your nighttime routine, and teach your child that the bed is for sleeping.
For further info on these topics please review the following articles and/or books:
Why We Sleep, Mathew Walker, PhD. Scribner 2017
Vision and Breathing May Be the Secrets to Surviving 2020, Jessica Wapner, Scientific American, Nov. 16, 2020
And if you like to learn while you walk – try this one…
 Walker, Matthew, PhD. Why We Sleep, Scribner 2017, pg. 87 - 90
 Wapner, Jessica, Vision and Breathing May Be the Secrets to Surviving 2020, Scientific American, Nov. 16, 2020