What’s the issue?
Settling difficulties are common in as much as 25 per cent of young children, with resistance to bedtime or being unable to drop off to sleep being commonly cited problems.
How much sleep do kids need?
How much sleep your child needs depends on their age and activity levels. The following table gives approximate hourly needs however, your child may differ from this. If you have concerns, refer to your health visitor or GP for guidance.
What can I do?
It’s natural to feel anxious when your child can’t settle, but by putting some practical steps in place, you can ensure it doesn’t become a wider issue, potentially causing disruption for the whole household. The steps you implement will depend on the age of your child and the sleep or settling problem they have. Here are our top tips for a restful night.
1. Wind down
As the evening progresses, encourage a wind down. For older children this might involve reading or listening to music. The longer your child takes to go to sleep, the longer their wind-down time needs to be.
2. Establish a bedtime routine
Start your routine about 20 minutes before your child’s bedtime. If your child finds settling difficult, aim for this ‘bedtime’ routine to coincide with when they naturally start to get sleepy, and work towards gradually bringing that time forward to your preferred bedtime (for young children 7-8pm is a good time). For this age group, a bedtime routine might involve a bath, teeth clean and a bedtime story.
3. Promote a well-adjusted, regular body clock
Keep sleep and wake times the same, even at the weekends. By doing this you help develop your child’s natural body clock, which is important for sustaining a regular sleep cycle.
4. Avoid technology
This includes tablets, TVs, computer screens and mobile phones, because the light from these screens can have a stimulatory effect. This ‘blue’ light suppresses levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin and delays sleepiness. Encourage children to turn these devices off at least one hour before bedtime, and preferably earlier, and to keep screens out of your child’s bedroom at night.
5. Make the bedroom sleep-friendly
A peaceful, dimly lit room, kept at a comfortable temperature (about 18C) is important for sleep. Start to dim the lighting as you near bedtime and especially as you prepare your child for bed.
6. Eat to sleep well
Feeling hungry or being too full are both reasons why children can’t sleep. What time your child eats their evening meal is also important because eating too late shuts off melatonin production and delays sleep. Ideally, have your family meal at least four hours before bedtime. Make it a satisfying meal, combining protein and carbohydrates to encourage melatonin production. The best protein foods are those that contain the amino acid tryptophan – these include chicken, turkey, milk and dairy. Enjoy these with a portion of rice, pasta, noodles or potatoes, as carbohydrate foods help tryptophan to work more effectively.
7. Avoid caffeine-containing drinks and foods (especially after lunchtime)
Coffee, tea, energy drinks and chocolate supply caffeine which is known to disrupt sleep, especially in certain individuals. Studies show that moderate to high caffeine consumers are more likely to have disturbed and interrupted sleep.
8. Get plenty of natural daylight
This is particularly useful in the morning. This is because bright light suppresses melatonin, which means your child will feel awake and alert during the day and sleepy at bedtime.
9. A glass of warm milk before bed
If your child tends to eat their supper earlier in the evening, but perhaps struggles to go to bed or stays up later, especially at the weekend or school holiday, try giving them a glass of warm milk with a cracker or oatcake as a snack about an hour before bed. This will help ensure that they do not go to bed hungry, and they may also stay asleep longer as a result of more stable blood sugars.
10. Reduce their sugar intake
Sugar affects the quality of our sleep and reducing the sugary drinks and foods in your child’s diet will help avoid sleep disruption. If you want to be able to give them something sweet then opt for something wholesome like a piece of fruit with a small piece of cheese, to help stabilise blood sugars, or try one of our lower sugar recipes.
Sleep-promoting dinnertime suggestions:
Slow cooker chicken casserole
Italian tuna balls
More family meal recipes
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Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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