We’re on the cusp of another new school year, and while there are questions and uncertainties due to COVID-19, one thing that doesn’t change is the importance of returning to that school-year routine after summer, and a key part of that is good sleep habits.
Dr. Mark Boulos, a staff neurologist at Sunnybrook who specializes in sleep and stroke, offers some insight into the importance of sleep for children and how parents can encourage good sleep habits in their children.
Why good sleep matters
“Sleep is really important at all ages, but particularly for children because their bodies are going through so many changes,” says Dr. Boulos.
He says while a child who doesn’t get enough sleep might not fall asleep on their desk, sleep deprivation can cause irritability, behaviour issues or even difficulty in school.
“It will manifest in different ways,” Dr. Boulos says. “There’s important things your brain is developing at that time. It’s a really, really important age to be sleeping well.”
Establishing a sleep routine
Dr. Boulos says he would not be surprised if some children are having trouble sleeping during the COVID-19 pandemic because there is so much uncertainty around their daily schedules.
“There’s just so little certainty for what the next step will be,” he says. “There’s tons of anxiety, not only for adults, but for the kids too. That certainly affects and can contribute to insomnia, even at a young age.”
One way parents can help kids struggling with sleep is to create some stability and routine around sleep. Dr. Boulos says now is a good time, a couple weeks before school starts, to begin practicing that sleep routine with kids.
“Establishing a routine as far in advance as possible makes it feel more natural,” he says.
He suggests having a set bedtime for children and sticking to it as much as possible, even over the weekends, keeping in mind that school-aged children need nine to 12 hours of sleep per night.
“You have a set time: brush teeth, get tucked in, have some sort of relaxation technique to settle kids,” he says, giving the example of reading stories before bed.
He emphasizes that every family is different and it’s important to establish a sleep routine that works for your family, just keeping in mind the time kids need to be up for school.
And, as much as possible, have kids turn off their screens an hour before bedtime.
“When light shines in your eye, it has a waking effect. At night, if lights are flashing in your eyes from the screen, your brain actually thinks you need to be more awake and it can make you have a harder time falling asleep,” Dr. Boulos says.
Don’t forget physical activity
Encouraging kids to be physically active throughout the day will also help with sleep.
“If they’re physically active [and] intellectually active, by the time they reach nighttime, they will be so exhausted and they will fall asleep and sleep the whole night,” Dr. Boulos says.
He says if children are still struggling to fall or stay asleep with a good routine and physical activity during the day, parents shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to their family doctor.
“[Sleep] is very important. Healthy habits early in life will really project into healthy habits later as an adult,” Dr. Boulos says.