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Making sure your children get enough quality sleep is a priority for the whole family.

One of the most common questions I get asked as a pediatric sleep psychologist is “how much sleep does my child need?”  The National Sleep Foundation recently updated their recommendations for sufficient sleep duration across development.

These numbers often send parents into a panic when they think their child is not obtaining sufficient sleep.  Adults, on the other hand, can usually tell you how much sleep they need, but then tell you how much they can get by on.

The latter is dangerous as deficient sleep is known to cause significant problems, including negative mood, impaired performance, significant health issues, and drowsy driving. While adults may be willing to take a gamble on their own health, children should be given every opportunity to be healthy and successful, which requires sufficient sleep!

How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?

The new recommendations highlight that sleep duration is highly variable, and will differ from one person to another.  Think of your sibling or partner. It is likely that your sleep need differs from theirs, as some people need more sleep than others (whether or not they get what they need is a whole different story…).  The same is true with children. Sleep needs can vary by as many as two to three hours per night, even within the same age group and activity levels!

Signs Your Child is Not Getting Enough Sleep

FYI: these apply to grown-ups too!

  • It is difficult to wake your child in the morning and he is not able to “get going” within 15 minutes.  Children (and adults) should be able to wake up naturally after a good night’s sleep, or at least be able to wake easily to an alarm clock.  If you are throwing cold water on your child, dragging him out of bed, or using multiple alarm clocks, he is not getting enough sleep.
  • On weekends or school holidays, your child sleeps at least 2 hours more per night than she does during the school week.  Sometimes it is a simple math problem.  If you child gets 9 hours of sleep per night during the summer, but only 7 hours per night during the school year, her sleep debt is 10 hours by the end of every school week. You can try to combat sleep debt by getting more sleep, but the results when you attempt to “catch up” over a short period of time (like a weekend) can be more harmful than helpful.  For example, weekend oversleep can cause insomnia on Sunday nights, and come Monday morning no one’s week is starting off well…
  • Your child falls asleep during school, short daytime car rides (e.g., 10 or 15 minutes), or at other inappropriate times (e.g., attending a sporting event or participating in a fun activity).  Some adolescents may need a brief (30-45 minute) nap after school, but school-aged children should not be falling asleep during the day. If your adolescent requires a daily nap, try revisiting his overall sleep schedule, or at least making sure he maximizes the value of a nap.
  • Fill in the blank: “Following a night of poor quality or short sleep my child is ______________.”  This is the simplest way of telling whether or not your child is getting enough sleep.  Most parents can easily tell their child has not gotten enough sleep because she is grumpy, irritable, or some other (usually unpleasant) characteristic that differs from how she usually is. For younger children, a hidden sign of tiredness is hyperactivity. Children who act unnaturally “amped up” may actually be suffering from a lack of sleep. So before you assume that your child has too much energy, make sure they have had enough rest!

In order to obtain sufficient sleep duration, it is important to make sleep a priority for every member of the family.

Proper sleep starts with maintaining a healthy sleep routine, which includes a consistent bedtime and wake time, and a cool, dark, quiet and technology-free bedroom. Much like diet and exercise, sleep works best to keep you healthy when you have a consistent routine and schedule!

Lisa Meltzer

Lisa Meltzer is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at National Jewish Health and an Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Pomona College, and her master’s degree and Ph.D. in clinical and health psychology from the University of Florida. Dr. Meltzer completed her clinical internship and post-doctoral fellowship at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where she was awarded a Pickwick Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Sleep by the National Sleep Foundation. After 5 years on faculty at CHOP/University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, she relocated to her hometown of Denver, Colorado and joined the faculty at National Jewish Health.Dr. Meltzer’s research focuses on sleep in children with chronic illnesses and their parents, the impact of deficient sleep on health outcomes in adolescents with asthma, pediatric sleep and primary care, as well as the development and validation of objective and subjective measures of pediatric sleep. In 2014 Dr. Meltzer was selected as the Education Fellow for the National Sleep Foundation, assisting with the development of programs to educate primary care providers about sleep health. She is also the chair of the Trainee Education and Advisory Committee of the Sleep Research Society. In addition to her research and service, Dr. Meltzer is certified in Behavioral Sleep Medicine by the American Board of Sleep Medicine and enjoys working with children and their families in the Pediatric Behavioral Sleep Clinic at National Jewish Health.

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