Adequate sleep is key to good health, well-being and proper functioning across all life stages but is especially critical for children. Poor sleep can inhibit rapid growth and development in early childhood.
And it’s not just about sleep duration; the time one goes to bed also plays an important role in the physical, emotional, and cognitive development of children.
A consistent early bedtime is especially important for young children transitioning from biphasic sleep (where children still nap during the day) to monophasic sleep (where sleep happens at night).
All this can add up to concentration, memory, and behaviour issues in children.
An early bedtime is good for physical health, too
Poor sleep is increasingly common in children and associations between short sleep duration in early childhood and obesity are consistently found.
It’s worth noting that most of the studies on this question are cross-sectional, which means they look at data from a population at one specific point in time. That has major limitations that make it hard to say poor sleep habits cause the higher obesity risk.
To know more, we need more longitudinal studies that examine change over time.
That said, emerging evidence from longitudinal studies supports the idea an early bedtime may be worth the battle. One longitudinal study found:
Preschool-aged children with early weekday bedtimes were half as likely as children with late bedtimes to be obese as adolescents. Bedtimes are a modifiable routine that may help to prevent obesity.
My own research, published last year with colleagues in the journal Acta Paediatrica, analysed four years of data from 1,250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged five to eight years old.
The results highlight that even after controlling sociodemographic and lifestyle factors, children who had consistently late bedtimes (after 9.30pm) were on average 1.5kg to 2.5kg heavier at follow up three years later than children who go to bed early (at around 7pm).
Nobody can yet say for sure what the exact relationship is between bedtime and obesity risk. Maybe it’s that staying up late provides more opportunities for eating junk food or drinking caffeinated drinks.
How late is late?
Sleep habits are shaped by a range of biological and cultural factors. When parents set their child’s bedtime, they’re influenced by cultural norms, lifestyle and what they know about the importance of sleep.
There are clear guidelines for sleep duration for each age group, but the time a child should go to bed isn’t always as clearly defined. For a pre-schooler, I’d recommend a consistent bedtime between 7pm and 8pm to ensure adequate sleep (recognising, of course, that work and caring responsibilities can make this really difficult for some parents).
Develop an early bedtime routine for your child and try to stick to it, even when it’s “not a school night”. Irregular bedtimes disrupt natural body rhythms and, as many parents know from direct experience, can lead to behavioural challenges in children.
Early childhood is a critical time in which the foundations of life-long habits are built. Developing healthy sleep habits can set children on the right path for better future health and well-being.
An interesting side effect of the coronavirus pandemic is the number of people who say they are having vivid dreams.
Many are turning to blogs and social media to describe their experiences.
While such dreams can be confusing or distressing, dreaming is normal and considered helpful in processing our waking situation, which for many people is far from normal at the moment.
While we are sleeping
Adults are recommended to sleep for seven to nine hours to maintain optimal health and well-being.
When we sleep we go through different stages which cycle throughout the night. This includes light and deep sleep and a period known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which features more prominently in the second half of the night. As the name implies, during REM sleep the eyes move rapidly.
Dreams can occur within all sleep stages but REM sleep is considered responsible for highly emotive and visual dreams.
We typically have several REM dream periods a night, yet we do not necessarily remember the experiences and content. Researchers have identified that REM sleep has unique properties that help us regulate our mood, performance and cognitive functioning.
This global pandemic and associated restrictions may have impacts on how and when we sleep. This has positive effects for some and negative effects for others. Both situations can lead to heightened recollection of dreams.
Disrupted sleep and dreams
Ruminating about the pandemic, either directly or via the media, just before going to bed can work against our need to relax and get a good night’s sleep. It may also provide fodder for dreams.
When we are sleep deprived, the pressure for REM sleep increases and so at the next sleep opportunity a so-called rebound in REM sleep occurs. During this time dreams are reportedly more vivid and emotional than usual.
More time in bed
If you’re working and learning from home on flexible schedules without the usual commute it means you avoid the morning rush and don’t need to get up so early. Heightened dream recall has been associated with having a longer sleep as well as waking more naturally from a state of REM sleep.
If you’re at home with other people you have a captive audience and time to exchange dream stories in the morning. The act of sharing dreams reinforces our memory of them. It might also prepare us to remember more on subsequent nights.
This has likely created a spike in dream recall and interest during this time.
The pandemic concerns
Dreaming can help us to cope mentally with our waking situation as well as simply reflect realities and concerns.
In this time of heightened alert and changing social norms, our brains have much more to process during sleep and dreaming. More stressful dream content is to be expected if we feel anxious or stressed in relation to the pandemic, or our working or family situations.
Hence more reports of dreams containing fear, embarrassment, social taboos, occupational stress, grief and loss, unreachable family, as well as more literal dreams around contamination or disease are being recorded.
An increase in unusual or vivid dreams and nightmares is not surprising. Such experiences have been reported before at times associated with sudden change, anxiety or trauma, such as the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the US in 2001, or natural disasters or war.
Those with an anxiety disorder or experiencing the trauma first-hand are highly likely also to experience changes to dreams.
Problems solved in dreams
This is achieved through the reactivation of particular brain areas during REM sleep and the consolidation of neural connections.
During REM the areas of the brain responsible for emotions, memory, behaviour and vision are reactivated (as opposed to those required for logical thinking, reasoning and movement, which remain in a state of rest).
The neural activity has been proposed to synthesise learning and memory. The actual dream experience is more a by-product of this activity, which we assemble into a more logical narrative when the remainder of the brain attempts to catch up and reason with the activity on waking.
Please … go to sleep
If disrupted sleep and dreams are problematic or distressing for you, consider how your sleep schedule and behaviour has changed with the pandemic. Maybe seek advice for supporting your sleep and well-being during this time.
We are also conducting a survey concerning the sleep of people living in New Zealand. This explores factors affecting sleep during the pandemic, and participants can comment on their dreaming.
Getting a good night’s sleep can be difficult at the best of times. But it can be even harder when you’re anxious or have something on your mind – a global pandemic, for example.
Right now though, getting a good night’s sleep could be more important than ever.
How much do we need?
Social distancing has many of us spending more time at home. This may mean more sleep for some people – suddenly you’ve got time to sleep in and even have a nap in the afternoon.
For others, falling out of your usual routine may mean less sleep. Instead of going to bed when you normally would, you might be staying up late watching Netflix, scrolling social media or glued to coronavirus news.
For adults, achieving between seven and nine hours of sleep per night is the goal. If you know you’re a person who needs more or less, finding that perfect amount of sleep for you and aiming to achieve that consistently is key.
Sleep and our circadian system (or internal body clock) are essential for regulating our mood, hunger, recovery from illness or injury, and our cognitive and physical functioning.
Shifting our bed or wake times from day-to-day may affect all of these functions. For example, higher variability in night-to-night sleep duration has been linked to increased depression and anxiety symptoms.
Long-term consequences of sleep problems can include obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
Sleep and immune function
Declines in the quality and/or quantity of sleep can affect our immunity, leaving us more susceptible to illnesses including viruses.
During sleep, the immune system releases proteins called cytokines. Certain cytokines are important for fighting infections and inflammation, and help us respond to stress. But when we don’t get enough sleep or our sleep is disrupted, our bodies produce fewer of these important cytokines.
In one study, participants were exposed to the common cold (rhinovirus). Those who slept less than seven hours per night were almost three times more likely to develop a cold than those who slept eight hours per night or more.
Another study indicated that a single night of no sleep may delay our immune response, slowing our body’s ability to recover.
While we don’t have any research yet on the relationship between sleep and the coronavirus, we could expect to see a similar pattern.
Sleep and stress: a vicious cycle
You’ve probably heard the phrase “to lose sleep over” something. We have this saying because stress can negatively affect sleep quality and quantity.
Lack of sleep also causes a biological stress response, boosting levels of stress hormones such as cortisol in our bodies the next day.
Cortisol levels typically peak in the morning and evenings. Following a poor night’s sleep, you might feel more stressed, have trouble focusing, be more emotional, and potentially have trouble falling asleep the next night.
Prolonged sleep loss can make us more vulnerable to experiencing stress and less resilient at managing daily stressors.
Think of sleep as your “shield” against stress. A lack of sleep can damage the shield. When you don’t get enough sleep the shield cracks and you are more susceptible to stress. But when you get enough sleep the shield is restored.
It’s important to stop this cycle by learning to manage stress and prioritising sleep.
Tips for healthy sleep
To allow yourself the opportunity to get enough sleep, plan to go to bed about eight to nine hours before your usual wake-up time.
This may not be possible every night. But trying to stick to a consistent wake-up time, no matter how long you slept the night before, will help improve your sleep quality and quantity on subsequent nights.
Think about your environment. If you’re spending a lot of time at home, keep your bed as a space for sex and sleep only. You can also enhance your sleep environment by:
- keeping your lights dim in the evening, especially in the hour before sleep time
- minimising noise (you might try using earplugs or white noise if your bedroom gets a lot of noise from outside)
- optimising the temperature in your room by using a fan, or setting a timer on your air conditioning to ensure you’re comfortable.
Create a routine before bedtime to mentally relax and prepare for sleep. This could include:
- setting an alarm one hour before bed to signal it’s time to start getting ready
- taking a warm shower or bath
- turning off screens or putting phones on airplane mode an hour before bed
- winding down with a book, stretching exercises, or gentle music.
Explainer: how much sleep do we need?
Some other good ways to reduce stress and improve sleep include:
- exercising daily. To maximise the benefits for sleep, exercise in the morning in natural light
- incorporating relaxation into your daily life
- limiting caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes, particularly in the hours before bed.
Some nights will be better than others. But to boost your immunity and maintain your sanity during this unprecedented time, make sleep a priority.
Daylight saving will begin this weekend across most of Australia, signalling warmer weather, longer days and new opportunities for children to make the most of time outside.
It can also mark the start of a rough patch in the sleep department. Children’s body clocks can struggle to adjust as the hour shift forwards means they aren’t tired until later.
There are things parents can do to ease the transition to daylight saving and planning ahead is key. And if things get wobbly, there are also strategies to get them back on track.
But first, let’s look at where the problem starts.
Children’s body clocks
The body clock – also known as our circadian rhythm – controls when we sleep and wake.
Several environmental cues affect our body clock, the most common of which is the light-dark cycle. When it’s dark, our bodies produce more of the hormone melatonin, which helps bring on sleep. And when it’s light, our bodies produce less, so we feel more awake.
When daylight saving begins, children’s bodies aren’t getting the usual environmental signals to sleep at their regular time.
So, how do you plan for the daylight saving switchover?
1. Take a sleep health check
Most children wake themselves in the morning, or wake easily with a gentle prompt, if they’re getting enough good-quality sleep.
But sleep problems such as trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep are common and persistent. Around 50% of problems that begin before a child starts school continue into the early school years. So, early intervention makes a difference.
2. Review the bedtime routine
As well as the light-dark cycle, children’s circadian rhythms are synchronised with other environmental cues, such as timing around bath and dinner. A positive routine in the hour before bed creates consistency the body recognises, helping children wind down in preparation for sleep.
Bedtime routines work best when the atmosphere is calm and positive. They include a bath, brushing teeth and quiet play – like reading with you – some quiet chat time, and relaxing music.
Keeping quiet time consistent makes it easier to say goodnight and lights out. Doing a quick check on whether they’ve had a drink, been to the toilet and so on can help address things they might call out for later.
Gently reminding children what you expect and quiet praise for staying in bed helps too.
3. Keep regular sleep and wake times
Sticking to similar daily bedtimes and wake times keeps children’s circadian rhythms in a regular pattern.
It’s best to keep this routine during weekends and holidays – even though these are times when older children in particular are eager for later nights. This is worth remembering to avoid a double whammy of sleep disruption as daylight saving and the school holidays coincide.
If your child is not tiring until later, try making bedtime 15 minutes earlier each day until you reach your bedtime target.
4. Control the sleep environment
Darkening the room is an important cue to stimulate melatonin production. This can be challenging during daylight saving, depending on your home. Trying to block out light – say, with thicker curtains – is a good strategy. Keeping the amount of light in the room consistent will also make for better sleep.
Research suggests the blue light emitted by screens from digital devices might suppress melatonin and delay sleepiness. It’s advisable to turn screens off at least an hour before bed and to keep them out of the bedroom at night.
Temperature plays a role in priming children for sleep, as core body temperature decreases in sync with the body clock. So, check the room, bedding or clothing aren’t too hot. Between 18℃ and 21℃ is the ideal temperature range for a child’s bedroom.
5. Consider what happens during the day
Making sure your child gets plenty of natural daylight, especially in the morning, keeps them alert during the day and sleepy in the evening.
Daytime physical activity also makes children tired and ready for a good night’s sleep.
For children over five, keep naps early and short (20 minutes or less) because longer and later naps make night sleep harder.
For younger children, too little daytime sleep can make them overtired and therefore harder to settle into bed.
6. Focus on food and drink
Think about dinner timing because feeling hungry or full before bedtime can delay sleep by making children too alert or uncomfortable.
It’s also important to avoid caffeine in the late afternoon and evening. Caffeine is in chocolate, energy drinks, coffee, tea and cola.
In the morning, a healthy breakfast helps kick-start your child’s body clock at the right time.
Finally, worries, anxiety, and common illnesses can also cause sleep problems. If problems last beyond two to four weeks, or you’re worried, see your GP.
To sleep or to snooze? You probably know the answer, but you don’t prefer it.
Most of us probably use the snooze function on our alarm clocks at some point in our lives. Just a few more minutes under the covers, a time to gather our thoughts, right?
While such snoozing might seem harmless, it may not be. For starters, it is important to understand why we are using the snooze button in the first place. For some it’s a habit that started early on. But for many, it can signal a significant problem with sleep. Poor sleep has been shown to be associated with a number of health disorders including high blood pressure, memory problems and even weight control.
I’m a facial pain specialist and have extensively studied sleep and how it impacts painful conditions. With testing, we discover that many of our chronic pain patients also suffer with various sleep disorders.
What does normal sleep look like?
If one is tired when the alarm goes off, is it helpful to use the snooze button? While there are no scientific studies that address this topic specifically, the answer is probably not. Our natural body clock regulates functions through what’s known as circadian rhythms – physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle.
Most adults require approximately seven and a half to eight hours of good sleep per night. This enables us to spend adequate time in the stages of sleep known as nonrapid eye movement sleep (NREM) and rapid eye movement sleep (REM).
We tend to cycle from the three stages of NREM into REM sleep four to six times per night. The first portion of the night is mostly NREM deep sleep and the last portion consists of mostly REM sleep.
Good sleep is important
Maintaining this well-defined structure is important for good, restful sleep. If this process is disturbed, we tend to awaken still feeling tired in the morning.
A number of factors can affect the sleep cycles. For example, if a person is not breathing well during sleep (snoring or sleep apnea), this will disturb the normal sequences and cause the individual to awaken feeling unrestored. Sleep quality can be diminished by the use of electronic devices, tobacco or alcohol in the evening. Even eating too close to bedtime can be problematic.
The use of snooze buttons often starts during the teenage years, when our circadian rhythms are altered somewhat, causing us to want to stay up later and get up later in the morning. Delaying getting out of bed for nine minutes by hitting the snooze is simply not going to give us any more restorative sleep. In fact, it may serve to confuse the brain into starting the process of secreting more neurochemicals that cause sleep to occur, according to some hypotheses.
Bottom line: It’s probably best to set your alarm for a specific time and get up then. If you are consistently tired in the morning, consult with a sleep specialist to find out why.
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Often during the day I feel the need to have a bit of a lie-down. Whether it’s been a busy day, I didn’t sleep well the night before, or for no particular reason I know of. But some will warn that you’ll be ruined for sleep that night if you nap during the day.
We asked five experts if we should nap during the day.
Four out of five experts said yes
Here are their detailed responses:
If you have a “yes or no” health question you’d like posed to Five Experts, email your suggestion to: firstname.lastname@example.org
None of the authors have any interests or affiliations to declare.