Kids Need Good Sleep as Much as Nutrition and Exercise

CC BY 2.0. Lars Plougmann

Everything hinges on sleep, so why is this a largely neglected area of parenting discussion, especially in older kids?

As a parent, you hear a lot about the importance of nutrition and exercise in raising healthy children; but strangely, there is little mention of sleep beyond the infant years. This baffles me. After nearly a decade of parenting, I am convinced that lack of sleep is at the root of many behavioral, emotional, and health issues that plague Western families these days. If sleep were prioritized, I sincerely think that many common school-aged ailments, such as attention deficit disorder, anger management issues, overweight/obesity, stress, and depression, could be mitigated.

Good sleep habits, however, are rarely prescribed as a first-step solution to these issues. Instead, frantic parents turn to drugs and therapists, or simply resign themselves to years of tumultuous and exhausting parenting.

An article in The Guardian expressed concern over the number of children being prescribed melatonin as a sleep remedy and the record numbers of kids under 14 being admitted to hospital with sleep disorders. Pediatricians are concerned that parents don’t understand the long-term effects of melatonin, which can damage puberty hormones down the road. Vicky Dawson, founder of the Children’s Sleep Charity in the UK, says, “Lots of children are being prescribed melatonin ‘often because there is no behavioral support for sleep available’.”

Another sleep expert, Mandy Gurney, makes the same observation:

“[Melatonin] should be targeted to children with known conditions that can lead to low melatonin levels... and not just dished out because there is no time to do things like behavioral programs to improve sleep, which are known to be more effective.”

Lack of behavioral support is the big problem here. Parents are drugging their kids to sleep because they don’t know how to teach kids to sleep well. It’s not their fault because they've never been taught themselves! There is minimal public discourse on the importance of sleep in older kids, particularly when you compare it to the volume and visibility of literature on healthy eating and staying active. Unless you go digging for resources and support, it can be hard to figure out.

I learned the hard way. After having my first baby, I realized that neither he nor I functioned as normal human beings unless both of us slept well. In fact, everything from eating to socializing to mood was hurt by lack of sleep. After memorizing The Baby Whisperer, we established a sleep routine that restored me to normalcy and him to happiness.

My kids aren’t babies anymore, but I am just as obsessed with their sleep as ever. They get hustled upstairs every evening at 6:30 p.m. to start the bedtime routine, with the goal of having lights out by 7 o’clock. Very little interferes with this schedule. We do not schedule extra-curricular activities that would affect it. If we have guests, the kids say goodnight, and my husband and I excuse ourselves for a few minutes to tuck them in. (This has the added benefit of giving us several hours alone.)

With adequate sleep, my kids are cheerful, cooperative, and alert in the morning. If, for some odd reason, they’ve gone to bed late, they morph into strange little beings by daytime – miserable, argumentative, unable to focus on homework and music practice. On those days, I feel I’ve put them at a disadvantage, unable to cope with the world for a day because they haven’t rested sufficiently.

I’m not the only one who thinks this way. In her recent book, Option B, Sheryl Sandberg writes about the importance of sleep for her pre-teenaged children in the wake of their father’s sudden death. Sleep had always been a priority, to the point where her kids weren’t allowed sleepovers, but it became even more important for helping them cope with grief.

All around, I see poor children who are visibly exhausted. They can’t sit still in class; they have tantrums; they struggle with poor appetites, are lethargic or weak in physical play, or are unhappy and anxious. While I acknowledge the presence of other contributing factors, I wish I could write an unofficial sleep ‘prescription’ for most of these kids because I think it would help. It would look like this:

- Minimum two hours of unscheduled outdoor play every day, rain or shine or snow
- No screen time ever, or at least no screens three hours prior to bedtime
- Fewer extracurricular activities, more time for boredom
- Healthy food, minimal sugar
- A bedtime set in stone, around which everything else must revolve
- A target of 10-14 hours of sleep per night, depending on child’s age
- A cozy, calming, predictable bedtime routine that rarely changes
- Do this every night, religiously and indefinitely, and feel your home life settle & relax