When I first meet with parents, we start with a conversation about their strengths as a family and where they need support. But within the first few minutes, I always ask a question that catches parents off guard.
Parents are often surprised why I am asking about sleep when they came to me for help solving a different problem. But in my experience, many family dynamic challenges are due to children not getting enough sleep. And even if the family issues aren’t caused by lack of sleep, sleep deprivation is exacerbating the problem.
When children are not getting enough sleep, there are clear increases in emotional outbursts, behavioral problems, and frustrating family dynamics, such as talking back. Children with too little sleep even show cognitive problems, like a lack of ability to focus or a harder time regulating impulses.
Think about yourself for a moment. When you have a sleepless night, you wake up grumpier. Your temper is shorter. You are more likely to have big reactions to typical daily frustrations, like getting cut off in traffic or somebody providing critical feedback. You are more likely to comfort eat a huge piece of cake. The longer the sleep deprivation lasts, the more reactive and emotional you become.
The same is true for your child.
If your child is exhibiting emotional or behavioral issues, fixing any sleep challenges is the first step towards claiming a more balanced family life.
How do you know if sleep is an issue? The first step is to count the hours of sleep your child is getting.
Sleep needs vary by age. Including naps, here are the recommendations per age:
Take a moment to add up how much sleep your child is getting. Then, check out the priorities below based on your answer.
If your child is not within the recommended range, you need to adjust the sleep routine and schedule so that your child is getting more sleep.
All children, from infants to teens, benefit from a bedtime routine. A predictable “wind down” time prior to bed is important for getting your child ready to sleep. This time should not include any media for at least 30 minutes prior the goal bedtime. (The American Academy of Pediatrics promotes a bedtime ritual of brush, book, bed.)
Once you decide on a bedtime routine, it’s time to examine the bedtime. Generally speaking, children younger than 10 should have a bedtime between 6 and 8 p.m., depending on what is best of your family life and how early your child needs to wake up in the morning. The most that we can move a bedtime is by 15 minutes a week. So have a goal bedtime in mind, and then work to achieve that goal by shifting bedtime by 15 minutes a week. Consistency is key – in bedtime ritual and time – to help your child adjust to a consistent sleep schedule.
Maybe your child gets the recommended amount of sleep some nights, but not others. Inconsistency in sleep schedules and bedtimes can lead to cumulative sleep deprivation. Sleep scientists agree you cannot make up for one bad night of sleep with sleeping longer the next night. Instead, consistency is the name of the game. If you notice that your child gets varying amounts of sleep, evaluate how you can bring greater consistency to your family bedtime routine and schedule.
Some children simply have lower sleep needs than others. If your child is functioning well during the day, they may be just fine operating with less sleep than other children. If you are noticing behavioral or emotional issues, consider moving bedtime earlier to help your child get in a bit more sleep. Observe if that helps your child manage their emotions and behavior.
It’s great news that your child is getting enough sleep! Now that your child’s sleep needs are taken care of, other options for helping your child manage emotional or behavioral problems are possible. Rethinking approaches to punishment, family rules, and building emotion regulation skills are all next steps for helping your child become more regulated.
Parent With Science supports parents and people that care for children. Through education and parent coaching, my goal is to help all families thrive.
Schedule a parent coaching session today.
I am an award-winning scientist, educator, author, and a mom. I help parents accomplish their goals for themselves and their families.
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