Canada is one of the most sleep deprived countries in the world, with 30% of us sleeping less than 6 hours per night, on average. Canada was only beaten by the U.K. and Ireland for the title of the world's most exhausted nation - making us more sleep deprived than our neighbours to the south.
Why is sleep so important? Poor sleep health - getting insufficient sleep on a regular basis - is associated with numerous health implications from cognitive impairment, to mental and emotional health issues, to weakened immunity, to increased risk of obesity, heart disease, and type II diabetes. Some reports suggest that chronic sleep deprivation is as bad for our brain health as binge drinking. Sleep issues? Check out our sleep guide.
As bad as chronic sleep deprivation is for adults, it's even worse for our children.
Sleep is a vital component of health maintenance – as important as eating and drinking water. You wouldn’t feed your toddler a bowl of sugar for breakfast; similarly, you shouldn’t put your toddler to bed at midnight if you know they routinely get up at 6am. Think of sleep as food for your child’s brain. During deep sleep, important body functions (including brain activity) occur. Inadequate sleep can be harmful — even deadly if behind the wheel.
Poor sleep in children has been associated with increased risk of depression, chronic stress, and increased likelihood of having a negative self-image. Not surprisingly, insufficient sleep is also linked to increased daytime fatigue, impeded ability to learn and concentrate, ADHD, hyperactivity, problematic behaviour, and lower overall levels of social skills. In children, chronic insufficient sleep has been associated with learning difficulties, poorer academic performance, and poorer coping skills. Several studies have reported that earlier bed times and later weekday rising times are positively correlated to better grades. Also, studies show that those with poor grades are more likely to sleep less hours per night, have later bed times, and have more frequent night time wakeups. In teenagers, insufficient sleep has been linked to depression, aggression and anger, and higher levels of stress. For more information, click here. It is important to note that poor sleep habits often begin early in life and persist into adulthood so it’s important to help your kids get on the right track in their early years.
So how much sleep is enough?
Here are some guidelines from the National Sleep Foundation regarding the ideal amounts of sleep, by age group, for optimal physical and emotional health as well as brain development:
- 0-3 months: Up to 18 hours per 24 hour period (on an irregular schedule), but not more than 19 hours/day.
- 4-11 months: 12-15 hours per 24 period including naps (but not more than 18 hours/day).
- 1-2 years: 11-14 hours of sleep per 24-hour period (including daytime naps), but not more than 16 hours/day.
- 3-5 years: 11-13 hours per day (many children stop napping by 5 years old), but not more than 14 hours. Typically this means lights out by 8pm.
- 6-13 years: 9-11 hours of sleep per night, but not more than 12 hours/day. Typically this means lights out by 9pm.
- Teenagers: 8-10 hours of sleep per night. Unfortunately, only about 15% meet their sleep requirements, with the average teen sleeping only 7 hours per night.
- Adults (18-64): Adults typically need between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. No less than 6 hours/day, but not more than 11 hours. 30% of Canadian adults sleep less than 6 hours/day.
- Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours (no less than 5 hours/day).
Teenagers need more sleep than adults, and more sleep than they typically get. Teenage circadian rhythms lead to a natural time-shift toward later bedtimes and later awakenings, which makes early exams, school starts, and early sports activities difficult from a sleep-health perspective.
Despite our children needing more sleep, there is also an increasing demand on our kid's time from school work, sports, extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, and social activities. In addition, school-aged children are getting more and more screen time (TV watching, video games, computers, smartphones, social media etc.) which often leads to difficulty falling asleep and disruptions in sleep. In children, screen time close to bed time has been associated with increased bedtime resistance, difficulty falling asleep, anxiety around sleep and sleeping fewer hours. Screen time is not good before bed for adults either.
Researchers at McGill University and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal found that children who got more sleep performed significantly better in math and languages and scored better in the areas of behaviour and attention.
What are the consequences of sleep deprivation in children?
- Impaired cognitive function: Children require sufficient sleep to function well in school and in life. Difficulty with comprehension, verbal fluency, abstract reasoning, planning, problem-solving, attentiveness and memory have all been linked to sleep deprivation in children.
- Lower grades: Studies report that earlier bedtimes and later weekday rise times are positively correlated to grades, while those who get poor grades are more likley to sleep less and have later bed times.
- Behavioral deregulation: Inadequate sleep has been associated with hyperactivity, ADHD, aggression, impulsivity, and mood disturbances such as anxiety and depression.
- Weight gain: When it comes to weight management, sleep is an important hemostatic modulator and the reduction of sleep has been shown to significantly decrease both glucose and fat metabolism while also inappropriately increasing appetite, leading to weight gain. “Sleep plays an important role in regulating the hormones that influence hunger (ghrelin, cortisol, and leptin),” explains Medisys Registered Dietitian Richelle Tabelon, “that’s why sleep deprivation increases appetite and lads to overeating and weight gain” Tabelon continues.
- Life-long sleep problems: The longer you've had an unhealthy habit, the harder it is to change course. Unhealthy habits (like poor sleep) can develop at a very young age and stay with you for life unless you make a contious effort to change. It's important to teach your children healthy sleep habits from a young age, and also to set a good example by making sleep a family priority. If you don't put your health first, it's hard to teach your children to make their health a priority. If your child is having trouble sleeping now, work with them to improve the situation. A great thing about sleep is that once you get in the habit of going to bed earlier, you'll naturally feel tired earlier and your body will crave more sleep.
Poor sleep health has also been associated with:
- Increased risk of chronic stress and irritability.
- Negative self-image
- Poorer coping behaviours
- Daytime fatigue
- Impaired social skills
10 sleep health tips for young children:
- Create a routine: Children, particularly very young children, like routine and consistency because it gives them a sense of order. They enjoy knowing what comes next. Although we as parents may find it challenging to sing the same song to our toddler night after night, or read the same book to our 4 year old 365 days a year, but young children thrive on this type of routine and repitition.
- Set a specific bed time: Set a specific bed time and stick to it whenever you can, including weekends. This is particularly important for younger children and toddlers.
- Engage in calming activities before bed: For young children and babies, engaging in calming activities starting one hour prior to bedtime helps facilitate the sleeping process. For example, reading, massage, cuddles, and warm baths are great options. Studies have shown that children who are read to before bed enjoy better and longer night time sleeps.
- Lots of activity during the day: During the day (but not too close to bed time) it's important for kids to get lots of physical activity. Aim for at least 60 minutes of intense physical activity per day or more.
- Limit screen time: A good rule of thumb is to limit electronic screens within 1-2 hours of bed time - remove TVs, video games, computers, cell phones, ipads and other electronic devices from your child's bedroom, easier said than done, right?
- Hearty lunches and earlier, lighter dinners: Encourage hearty, healthy, balanced lunches and opt for lighter dinners. Eating large, heavy meals too close to bedtime can disturb your child's sleep.
- Dark bedrooms and "just for sleep" beds: Try to make your child's bedroom as dark as possible, and encourage the use of their bed for sleep only. For example, avoid using beds or cribs for "time outs" or for play to help your child develop a stronger association between beds and falling asleep.
- If drowsy, don't wait: If you notice your kid getting drowsy, start the bed time routine without delay. Maybe you need to skip the bath tonight or that evening music class, if your child is getting tired, put them to bed.
- Limit sugary foods: When our blood sugar is really high, our kidneys will try to get rid of it by removing it from the body via urination, resulting in wakeups and inconsistent sleep patterns. High blood sugar levels may also make it less comfortable to sleep by increasing feelings of warmness, irritability and unsettledness.
Warning signs that your child may have a sleep problems
- Loud snoring or paused breathing while sleeping
- Taking more than 20 minutes to fall asleep at night
- Waking up more than two times per night
- Staying awake for longer than 20 minutes after a night time wakeup (eg. going to the bathroom)
Other potential warning signs include excessive daytime sleepiness, frequent meltdowns later in the day, difficulty in school, difficulty paying attention, hyperactivity, frequent irritability, moodiness, or clumsiness.
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