When kids are losing sleep, it's time to rethink how we parent

child lying awake
CC BY 2.0 Fernando Messino

A growing number of children are struggling to fall asleep at night. Could our collective parenting style be at fault?

Sleep is a scarce commodity these days, but the problem is not just restricted to adults working long hours. It afflicts a growing number of children, too, who are having difficulty falling asleep at night. The problem has become so serious that many children are now prescribed melatonin, a supplement that augments the naturally occurring hormone produced in the body when the sun goes down.

Maclean’s reports that melatonin supplements have become so common that some grocery stores even post it on overhead signs in aisles: “It’s as much of a staple as eggs or salad dressing.” Rebecca Eckler describes her family’s experience in the Sept. 14 issue of Maclean’s:

“About 18 months ago, my [11-year-old] daughter’s pediatrician recommended a small dose for her: one milligram. A year later, my daughter is up to five, unless she’s had hours of exercise that day – such as a four-hour hike – in which case, she doesn’t need it.”

It is very disturbing to know that countless otherwise perfectly healthy children are unable to fall asleep at night. It sounds like a complete disaster in the making. Sleep, just like nutrition, is crucial for mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing, and developing children are particularly susceptible to its effects, or lack thereof.

In “The Organized Mind,” cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin describes how sleep is necessary for the consolidation of memories, which is the same for children learning new skills and knowledge. If you fail to sleep well for up to three nights following a particular experience or something you’ve learned, then it will be harder for you to remember it accurately.

It would appear to me that there’s something seriously wrong with our society’s approach to child-raising if it creates so many children unable to perform the most basic human function. What could possibly be wrong? I’m not a doctor, but I am a parent with three little children, and I know that the following list of things can affect my kids’ sleep quality when they occasionally creep into our lives. Simultaneously, I know that all or many of these things are a regular occurrence for a great number of children:

  • Too little outdoor playtime, not enough sunshine, fresh air, and exercise
  • Too much screen time, particularly in the two to three hours before bed
  • Too much sugar over the course of a day
  • Overstimulation from a schedule that’s too full of planned activities (after school or in the evenings) and does not contain enough down time at home
  • Too little sleep in prior days
  • A sleep routine that’s been thrown off, a regular bedtime that hasn’t been met for more than two days in a row, and not having time or space for naps

    Alanna McGinn, a sleep consultant who helps parents teach their kids how to fall asleep without aids, believes that “children are exhausted to the point they can’t sleep” and that academic and social stress are a big part of the problem.

    It’s definitely time for parents to lay off the expectations if kids are losing sleep over it. Perhaps our society’s children would be better off if we reverted to an older, more hands-off style of raising them, a.k.a. ‘slow parenting’ – letting them be kids, setting their own pace, allowing them to experience boredom. No amount of extra-curricular activities or social events is worth depriving a child of a good night’s sleep, for that is the best foundation for all accomplishments.

  • When kids are losing sleep, it's time to rethink how we parent
    A growing number of children are struggling to fall asleep at night. Could our collective parenting style be at fault?

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