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What’s Sleep Got To Do With It?

Children with well-established sleep habits and who regularly get adequate sleep exhibit behaviors identified as a state of central nervous system regulation. They wake up alert, ready to play, easily comforted when needed, engage in relationship with adults and peers, explore their environment, and are curious and ready to learn. In contrast, children with less regular sleep habits or disruptive sleep patterns exhibit behaviors identified as a state of central nervous system hyper-arousal.

They can be: irritable, anxious, hyper vigilant, agitated, aggressive, overwhelmed, disorganized, hyper-active, and sensitive to emotional stress. These symptoms can be short term and observed in children who missed their regular nap, or had a shorter nights sleep than normal. When these types of sleep disruption are the exception and not the rule children often bounce back or recover quickly when they get a chance to get back into their regular sleep pattern. Children who experience disrupted sleep or irregular sleep patterns over time can get “stuck” in a state of hyper arousal and returning to a state of regulation takes more time (and effort).

How much Sleep is adequate?

You might be surprised at how much sleep is recommended for children at different ages. These recommendations are based on numerous research studies and are the average number of hours of sleep based on those studies. There are of course factors that play into how much sleep we each require and we are all a little bit different but it is safe to say that even when taking these individual factors into consideration these recommendations give a good base line to consider when trying to determine if your child is getting enough sleep.

Here is a guideline put out by the National Sleep Foundation

0-2 months 12-18 hours
3-11 months 14-15 hours
1-3 years 12-14 hours
3-5 years 11-13 hours
5-10 years  10-11 hours
10-17 years  8.5-9.25 hours
Adults  7-9

5 Strategies for establishing healthy sleep habits to prevent and decrease challenging behaviors

  1. Make sleep a priority for your family. This might mean that you have to adjust your schedule and not try to do too much each day or week. Say no occasionally to invitations to do things if they conflict with the families established nap and bed times.
  2. Establish regular nap/bed times (as well as wake up times). One way to do this is to take into consideration when your child needs to wake up in the morning and work backwards to where they are getting the recommended hours of sleep. You might be surprised how early bedtime could be in order to get adequate sleep.
  3. Establish a bedtime routine. A simple 15-30 minute bedtime routine might include a warm bath, putting on pajamas, reading a story, snuggling, singing a song, saying prayers, and saying good night. Your bedtime routine should be predictable and enjoyable. If you find yourself in a battle at bedtime it can be helpful for your child to have a visual schedule of the routine. This can help them know what comes next and decrease power struggles.
  4. Bed is a comfortable place reserved for sleeping/resting. Having a favorite blanket, stuffed toy or “lovie” as well as other soothing items (soft music, night light) can help children feel safe and comfortable.
  5. Turn off all electronics 60 minutes before bedtime. Turning down the lights, turning off the TV, going “screen free” sends the message to our brains that we are preparing to sleep.

When do you seek help for sleep related concerns?

Common challenges arise around sleep and often do not resolve on their own. It might take a well thought out action plan to address sleep problems and disruptive sleep habits. If you have questions or concerns about challenging behaviors or specific sleep concerns we encourage you to seek help! One of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves and our children is a restful nights sleep.

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