Why children need sleep

When Johannes Brahm’s wrote his Wiegenlied (‘Guten Abend, gute Nacht”) in 1868 for his friend Bertha Faber in celebration of the birth of her second son, little did he know that his lullaby would be responsible for sending future babies all over the world and for centuries to come, into slumber-land.

His simple tune, regularly hummed by parents for their children, is almost hypnotic with its repetitive motifs guaranteed to shut weary eyes and send us fast asleep. It naturally lends itself to the mantra lyrics 'go to sleep, go to sleep, you’re my very own baby.’ The soothing melody has been used as the theme tune for many music boxes and integrated into children’s toys and voice-dolls.

The Dalai Lama told us that ‘sleep is the best medication,’ and it is only when we haven't had enough of this medicine that we notice a reduction in energy and effectiveness the following day. Sleep has been provided by nature to do the body’s healing work, and it takes seven or eight hours for this process to happen. Aiming for at least seven to eight hours of good quality sleep each night will help keep our body systems in balance.

With the importance of nutrition and regular exercise being emphasised in schools as key necessities for healthy development, sleep is a poor relation when it comes to being talked about openly. Poor sleep habits can begin in early age and lead to more serious problems in later years.

The National Health Service recommends the following hours of sleep for each of the age categories:

  • Babies 4 to 12 months old: 12 to 16 hours including naps
  • Toddlers 1 to 2 years old: 11 to 14 hours including naps
  • Children 3 to 5 years old: 10 to 13 hours including naps
  • Children 6 to 12 years old: 9 to 12 hours
  • Teenagers 13 to 18 years old: 8 to 10 hours

The advantages that come with quality and proper levels of sleep are many. This is especially true for young people and school-going children who require even more sleep than a grown-up. Scientific research has taught us to consider the following when thinking about sleeping patterns:

Sleep Deprivation
Because sleep has links to several brain functions, including our concentration, productivity and cognition, an inadequate amount results in a lowering of performance in these areas. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry went further, claiming that there is a direct link between children’s sleep patterns, their behaviour and school performance. Aside from basic alertness from pupils in class, lack of sleep has been associated with a decline in emotional and social intelligence.

According to the Journal of Sleep Research, a study showed that on researching responses to emotional stimuli for people of all ages, a person’s emotional empathy is drastically reduced when they do not get adequate sleep. 

Ensuring the bedroom is a sleep room.
Simple things can be the cause of children getting inadequate amounts of sleep. The bedroom environment may not be as conducive to sleep as we think – small things matter such as noise levels, brightness or room temperature. And when children are not comfortable in their sleeping environment, their unsettled state more than likely results in parents not getting enough sleep either.

Practices such as encouraging a child to make their own bed and not having a TV in the room or access to phone devices mean that they recognize the spaces as specially made for sleep.

Regular routine
Having a routine of going to bed at a set time helps promote quality sleep in children. Even what happens prior to sleep time helps to set a mood. Some quiet time with constructive play, reading a story or listening to music can all be relaxing and allow everyone in the family to ‘wind down’ towards bedtime.

It is best then to allow a child to head to bed with the intention of falling asleep rather than putting one to bed when already asleep. Avoiding late night meals, sugary treats or caffeine drinks or replacing these with a healthy ‘supper’ snack also contributes greatly to good preparation.

It goes without highlighting that a regular exercise routine is important for children. This too must be balanced as over exertion during the day can have unwanted consequences at night. Sometimes the state of 'overtiredness' can be a hindrance and make it harder to fall asleep.

While we sleep well, the body repairs, regenerates and recovers from the day before. Scientists are discovering that our immune systems also benefit from consistent night’s sleep, with emerging evidence suggesting that better sleep quality can contribute to the body’s capacity to fight against infection.

Although often neglected, sleep is a vital and necessary part of everyone’s complete health and well-being. The human body needs to repair and be ready for the next day, to see the world in a continuing or renewed positive light.

None of us want to start the day backwards by waking up tired and going to bed wide awake. So next time you listen to Johannes Brahm’s Lullaby, "Cradle Song"), Op. 49, No. 4, may you sleep well and as you do, “let the stars light the way to where your dreams can be found awaiting your arrival” Antony T Hincks


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