Why Does Sleep Matter?
Sleep is vital whether you’re 8 or 80. It's a time for the body to recover and rebuild, and for the brain to process new information. But for children, it's extra important. Their growing brains have a harder time dealing with the effects of sleep loss, says Judith Owens, MD, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children's Hospital.
"The learning of new tasks is certainly impacted by not getting enough sleep," she says. Children learn new skills at an enormous rate, whether it's a toddler walking and talking or a high-schooler driving a car and studying for exams.
Kids who get the right amount of sleep are less likely to make unhealthy choices and have behavior problems or trouble focusing in school, Breuner says. Well-rested teen drivers are also less likely to get into car accidents. Plus, sleep also protects kids' immune systems, so they won’t get sick as easily.
What Can Parents Do?
Teach your kids the importance of sleep by making it a priority in your house. Try these tips:
Set a smart nap schedule. Younger children should nap during the day, but if they snooze within a few hours of bedtime, it could keep them up at night. Even older children can benefit from occasional late-afternoon naps if they're not getting enough sleep at night, Owens says. But keep them short -- 30 minutes at most.
Limit screen time before bed. At night, the brain naturally produces hormones that help kids (and adults) sleep. But the glow from electronic screens can confuse the brain and stop that process. Keep devices like TVs and video games out of your child's bedroom, and get them to turn off smartphones, tablets, and other screens about an hour before bed, Owens says.
Build a regular bedtime routine. Kids should get used to a relaxing wind-down routine at night so their brains and bodies know that it's time for bed. Keep them from doing anything too active or exciting during this time. Be consistent, even on weekends. "Letting kids stay up late and then sleep in is only going to make it harder to get back on schedule for the week," Breuner says. It’s OK to go bed 30 minutes later or sleep for an extra hour, she says, but don't encourage anything more than that.