A Pediatrician’s Guide to Kids & Sleep: Why It’s Important & Tips for Parents

Are your kids getting the sleep they need? If your answer is “no” – you are not alone! In fact, studies show that between 25 and 50 percent of children have problems going to sleep.

Not getting enough sleep can negatively impact our health, ability to focus, and overall mental wellbeing. That’s why incorporating healthy sleeping habits is so important for your kids – and your own sanity!

So today, I want to discuss the reasons why sleep is so important and share my tips to help your child fall asleep easier each night.

The Importance of Sleep for Kids

Consistent sleep routines lead to positive outcomes such as improved attention, better behavior, improved emotional regulation, and overall good health.

That’s why the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, backed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommends a certain number of hours of sleep each night for different age groups.

  • Infants (4 to 12 months of age) should sleep 12 to 16 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
  • Toddlers (1 to 2 years of age) should sleep 11 to 14 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
  • Young Children (3 to 5 years of age) should sleep 10 to 13 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
  • Children (6 to 12years of age) should sleep 9 to 12 hours per 24 hours
  • Teenagers (13 to 18 years of age) should sleep 8 to 10 hours per 24 hours

But why is a lack of sleep such a bad thing? When our children are run down and tired, they can become more vulnerable to illness, in addition to other complications. Let’s break it down:

  • Decreased Immunity – Sleep is extremely important to maintaining good health and a strong immune system which is what defends our bodies against infection. During the school year especially, children are constantly exposed to new germs. But while we sleep, our bodies recharge the immune system and it becomes stronger for the next day. Your child’s body literally works to fight off these germs while they are asleep! 
  • Behavioral Problems and Impacts on School Performance – A study published in Pediatrics found that children with irregular bedtimes had more behavioral difficulties. According to Wendy Sue Swanson, not only does poor sleep lead to worse behavior, a child with behavioral challenges may have a difficult time sleeping. In addition to the cycle of behavioral challenges and lack of sleep, insufficient sleep in children can also lead to decreased performance at school.
  • Decreased Ability to Cope with Stress – Lack of sleep does not only affect a child’s mood but also affects their ability to concentrate and cope with stress. Sleep deprivation can also lead to your child being overly emotional, experiencing frequent temper tantrums and showing difficulty controlling impulses. Getting a full night of healthy sleep is vital to preventing those afternoon meltdowns (I mean the ones from the kiddos, but stress-free kids go hand in hand with stress-free parents)!

Tips to Help Your Child Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Good sleep is imperative for the health and development of your child. Remember, kids thrive on structure and schedules. Never underestimate the importance of cues and a consistent routine.

If your child suffers from sleep difficulties, here are some important tips that may help:

1. Bedtime Routine for Kids

Establishing healthy sleep habits – such as a consistent bedtime routine – can make all the difference. It is important that your child starts to wind down every night to allow their mind to get ready for sleep.  Having the same routine every night prepares your child for bedtime.

Many parents don’t realize that a late bedtime can actually result in a child having difficulty falling asleep and being more likely to resist their bedtime routine. For most young children, an appropriate bedtime is between 7:30pm and 8pm.

I recommend starting your transition to an earlier bedtime this way:  Each night, adjust your child’s sleep routine by about 15 minutes. Remember to keep the bedtime routine exactly the same as you normally would as the nighttime cues will help your child feel comforted and safe. A bedtime routine can also help your child know it’s time for bed, even if the sun’s still out!

2. Follow Your Child’s Cues

Did you know that kids under the age of 12, or before puberty, get tired naturally around 8pm?

Around 8pm there is a natural rise in a child’s melatonin level.

Seize the opportunity to transition kids to bed around that time. Make sure to look for cues like yawning, rubbing eyes, and moodiness. Try and set bedtime within 30 minutes of these cues for an easier transition to bed.

3. Decrease Screen Time

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all screens be turned off between 30 minutes and 1-2 hours before bedtime.

TVs are not the only issue. Small screens (like smart phones and tablets) can actually even be more disruptive to sleep than TV. The light from these smaller devices can disrupt our body’s natural hormones that help us fall asleep. Notifications from these devices can also break apart our sleep, so it’s important to never sleep with your cell phone next to you, and do not let your children either.

Never sleep with your cell phone next to you, and do not let your children either.

4. Try Kids’ Natural Sleep Aids

If you’ve followed all the guidelines above and your child is still having trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep, I have a few other recommendations.

A kids’ natural sleep aid typically contains essential oils that are calming in nature to help comfort and soothe kids to sleep and can become part of the bedtime routine – they include things like:

  • Bedtime sprays
  • Calming balms
  • Calming essential oils

Another option that has gotten a lot of attention in recent years is melatonin, which often comes in the form of gummies for kids but can also be found in other forms.

Melatonin is a hormone produced by our bodies to prepare us to go to seep. Naturally, our melatonin level rises at night and results in us feeling tired – giving our bodies the signals we need to fall asleep. Our level of melatonin then decreases as morning approaches, allowing us to wake up fresh and ready for the day.

Melatonin supplement products can be used safely used occasionally as a natural sleep aid for kids to help support and promote good sleep habits. However, I do NOT recommend using melatonin supplement products on a continuous basis. It is NOT a sleeping pill and should not be taken long-term by a child. It’s also important to remember you should never give your child an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine to make them sleepy. Always read the medicine label before giving your child any OTC medicine or dietary supplement. OTC cold and flu medicines may contain diphenhydramine, which can cause drowsiness but are not recommended for children as a sleep aid.

As a pediatrician, I feel strongly that giving children medications or supplements on a regular basis should only occur under the guidance or supervision of their doctor. I also firmly believe parents should incorporate healthy sleep habits – like the ones listed above – in conjunction with any kids’ natural sleep aid. My recommendation is that after a few days, you should discontinue the use of melatonin supplements for kids and focus on healthy sleep habits, such as a consistent bedtime routine.

Final Thoughts on Healthy Sleep

Sometimes kids have trouble falling asleep even when all conditions seem to be right.

If you notice your child’s sleep struggles happening more regularly, keeping a sleep diary can also help you uncover the causes of your child’s sleep problems. A sleep diary will be especially helpful if you plan to talk to your child’s doctor about your concerns.

~Dr. Katie

Meet Our Experts

Dr. Katie Friedman

Dr. Katie Friedman is a board certified pediatrician and specialist in pediatric emergency medicine. She is also a wife, and mother of two. Along with her sisters (Alison, a veterinarian and Carrie, a fashion stylist), she is a co-founder of Forever Freckled, a website dedicated to helping people with pets, children, and everyday lifestyle.