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Research shows that night waking in infancy is associated with behavioural control challenges at three and four years of age. (Shutterstock)

Children and sleep: How much do they really need?

How much sleep, and what type of sleep, do our children need to thrive?

In parenting, there aren’t often straightforward answers, and sleep tends to be contentious. There are questions about whether we are overstating children’s sleep problems. Yet we all know from experience how much better we feel, and how much more ready we are to take on the day, when we have had an adequate amount of good quality sleep.

I was one of a panel of experts at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine to review over 800 academic papers examining relationships between children’s sleep duration and outcomes. Our findings suggested optimal sleep durations to promote children’s health. These are the optimal hours (including naps) that children should sleep in every 24-hour cycle.

And yet these types of sleep recommendations are still controversial. Many of us have friends or acquaintances who say that they can function perfectly on four hours of sleep, when it is recommended that adults get seven to nine hours per night.

Optimal sleep hours: The science

We look for science to support our recommendations. Yet we cannot deprive young children of sleep for prolonged periods to see whether they have more problems than those sleeping the recommended amounts.

Some experiments have been conducted with teenagers when they have agreed to short periods of sleep deprivation followed by regular sleep durations. In one example, teenagers who got inadequate sleep time had worse moods and more difficulty controlling negative emotions.

Those findings are important because children and adolescents need to learn how to regulate their attention and manage their negative emotions and behaviour. Being able to self-regulate can enhance school adjustment and achievement.

With younger children, our studies have had to rely on examining relationships between their sleep duration and quality of their sleep and negative health outcomes. For example, when researchers have followed the same children over time, behavioural sleep problems in infancy have been associated with greater difficulty regulating emotions at two to three years of age.

Persistent sleep problems also predicted increased difficulty for the same children, followed at two to three years of age, to control their negative emotions from birth to six or seven years and for eight- to nine-year-old children to focus their attention.

Optimal sleep quality: The science

Not only has the duration of children’s sleep been demonstrated to be important but also the quality of their sleep. Poor sleep quality involves problems with starting and maintaining sleep. It also involves low satisfaction with sleep and feelings of being rested. It has been linked to poorer school performance.

Evidence has consistently pointed to the importance of parents’ behaviours in setting consistent sleep schedules. (Shutterstock)

Kindergarten children with poor sleep quality (those who take a long time to fall asleep and who wake in the night) demonstrated more aggressive behaviour and were represented more negatively by their parents.

Infants’ night waking was associated with more difficulties regulating attention and difficulty with behavioural control at three and four years of age.

From diabetes to self-harm

The Consensus Statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine suggested that children need enough sleep on a regular basis to promote optimal health.

Growing rates of obesity in children are linked to many lifestyle factors, including diet, physical activity and sleep. (Shutterstock)

The expert panel linked inadequate sleep duration to children’s attention and learning problems and to increased risk for accidents, injuries, hypertension, obesity, diabetes and depression.

Insufficient sleep in teenagers has also been related to increased risk of self-harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.

Parent behaviours

Children’s self-regulation skills can be developed through self-soothing to sleep at settling time and back to sleep after any night waking. Evidence has consistently pointed to the importance of parents’ behaviours not only in assisting children to achieve adequate sleep duration but also good sleep quality.

Parents can introduce techniques such as sleep routines and consistent sleep schedules that promote healthy sleep. They can also monitor children to ensure that bedtime is actually lights out without electronic devices in their room.

In summary, there are recommended hours of sleep that are associated with better outcomes for children at all ages and stages of development. High sleep quality is also linked to children’s abilities to control their negative behaviour and focus their attention — both important skills for success at school and in social interactions.

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