(iStock)

When one of my four kids is snappish, I almost immediately think about how much sleep the child had gotten the night before. If less than usual, then I generally know the why behind the crankiness—and brace myself for the onslaught of whininess. “Sleep supports healthy growth and development,” says Terry Cralle, a nurse and certified clinical sleep educator. “Children who sleep less than the recommended number of hours suffer an increase in behavior, learning and attention disorders.”

But in today’s fast-paced world, sleep is often overlooked or sacrificed. “Studies show that many children are getting less sleep than they did 20 years ago,” says Cralle.

Parents also underestimate the amount of sleep a tween or teen needs. Last year, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, backed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, changed its recommendations for how much sleep children should get:

  • Children 6 to 12 years: 9 to 12 hours of sleep each 24-hour period.
  • Teens 13 to 18 years: 8 to 10 hours of sleep each 24-hour period.

“Sleep deprivation has negative consequences for children’s health at every age,” says Dr. Anayansi Lasso-Pirot, pediatric pulmonologist and interim head of the division of pediatric pulmonology, allergy and sleep medicine at the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital. “Sleep is a restorative part of the day. Just as you recharge an iPhone or iPad, children at every age must recharge their batteries by getting a good night’s sleep.”

Bad Nighttime Habits

The factors contributing to kids not getting enough sleep vary, but here are some of the top contenders:

Smartphones. “Yes, a smartphone makes a good alarm, but not if kids are texting or checking social media all night,” says Elisabeth Stitt with Joyful Parenting Coaching. Christine Stevens, a certified sleep consultant with Sleepy Tots Consulting, adds that the “blue wavelength of light emitted by these devices tricks the brain into thinking it’s time to wake up and inhibits the production of melatonin, a key sleep hormone. So keep those smartphones out of their rooms at night. You can have them charge in your room to keep an eye on them, or another docking station.

Varying bedtimes. An occasional late night is okay, but consistency is the key to good sleep habits. A consistent bedtime helps set circadian rhythms and provides a sense of order and structure, Cralle says. Most nights, our own 8-year-old goes to bed at 8 p.m., our 10-year-old at 8:30 p.m., our 12-year-old at 9 p.m., and our 14-year-old at 9:30 p.m. The more consistent bedtimes are, Cralle says, the healthier the sleep habits.

Television. Like phones, children should really not have televisions in their rooms. They will be tempted to watch a show later than their body wants to be awake, and the blue light from TV is similar to that in phones. “Children with TVs in their bedroom sleep on average an hour less than other children,” says Dr. Robert S Rosenberg, board certified Sleep Medicine Physician and author of The Doctor’s Guide to Sleep Solutions for Stress & Anxiety.

Too many activities. Sleep is another reason to just tone down all those activities. Packing a kid’s schedule means there is less time to unwind or relax before bedtime, and sleep should be a priority.

“Catching up” on the weekends. Catching up on sleep doesn’t really work. If a child gets to bed too late all week, and you think it’ll work itself out during the weekend, think again. “Letting teens go to bed in the wee hours of the morning, then sleep till the afternoon on weekends reinforces and worsens the circadian shift (toward later bedtimes around age 13), making it almost impossible to return to a normal sleep/wake schedule on school days,” Rosenberg says.

Caffeine intake. Caffeine is a stimulant that increases wakefulness. But even if a child drinks something with caffeine in it hours before bedtime, it can still impact their sleep. “A lot of tweens and teens rely on energy drinks to keep them alert and awake in school,” Rosenberg says. “But these shots of caffeine can make it more difficult to fall asleep at night.”

Healthy Sleep Habits

Want another reason to get your child to bed on time? Sleep deprivation, especially in children, results in more accidents (including vehicular), and an increased risk of sports injuries and risk-taking behaviors. “Motivations, emotions, resilience, outlook, school performance, memory, relationships, mood and even propensity for substance abuse are negatively impacted by a lack of sleep,” Cralle says.

How can you help your child develop better sleep habits? First of all, model good habits and place a priority on sleep yourself. “There have been several studies that show a parent who leads by example when it comes to sleep is very effective,” Rosenberg says.

Other tips include:

Get regular exercise. I’ve noticed that my kids often have the most trouble falling asleep on rainy days when they’ve been cooped up inside. “Exercise promotes better moods, decreases anxiety and promotes sleep,” Rosenberg says.

Talk about the importance of sleep. “Educate your children on why we need sleep and highlight what happens when we don’t get enough of it,” Stevens says. For example, explain to them how sleep helps with memory, mood and athletic performance.

Incorporate downtime. “Parents grossly underestimate the amount of downtime kids need after they have been focused at school all day,” says Stitt. She recommends parents help kids create at least a half hour soothing, winddown routine that doesn’t include electronics before lights out.

The bottom line is that helping our children succeed in all aspects of life starts with helping them get a good night’s sleep. “Ensuring sufficient sleep in childhood can have a lifetime of benefits,” Cralle says. “Sufficient sleep is crucial to health, education and the ability of the child to reach his full potential.”

As Stevens reminds us, “it’s never too late to change habits to be rested, healthy and ready to take on the day.”

Sarah Hamaker is a certified leadership parenting coach. She blogs about parenting at www.parentcoachnova.com. Follow her on Twitter @parentcoachnova.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter.

More reading:

A mom is wondering whether to have a second child

14 things I learned after caring for 14 babies

How parents can find patience, empathy in a moment of frustration