When we wake up in the morning feeling refreshed and well-rested, having not been woken in the middle of the night and having slept for a full eight hours, we often describe this as being a "good night’s sleep" – but what does this really mean in a more literal, medical sense when it comes to our children?
It's vital that children (all humans in reality – but for the sake of this blog we are focusing on those under 18) get a good night's sleep every night, for their brain and body to restore cells, grow muscle and process information.
It will help them function the following day, increasing their concentration and allowing them to do better at school, it helps them react quicker and retain information, and it will make them less susceptible to illnesses like the common cold.
Not to mention, lack of sleep can negatively affect their mood and make them more irritable and less well-behaved; hence, there are many reasons as to why it's important that you make sure your child is always getting a good night's sleep.
But how can we identify when they have had a healthy night of sleep and what can we do to encourage this?
What defines a good night's sleep for children?
A good night's sleep often starts with, simply, making sure that you are getting enough of it every night.
Medical professionals have identified a general rule of thumb when it comes to how much sleep people should be getting, including children.
For toddlers, 12 – 14 hours a night is the consensus whilst children at pre-school age should be getting around 10 – 12 hours a night.
As they get older, the numbers of hours needed decreases; hence, children aged 6 - 12 years old only need approximately 9 - 11 hours a night whilst teenagers can function well with 8 - 10 hours.
This is all relative, however, as it can vary greatly from person to person, but these are guidelines that can be used as a starting point in making sure that your child is getting a good amount of sleep.
The other factor that plays an important role in getting a good night's sleep is the quality of their sleep which is mainly determined by whether their sleep was interrupted or not.
Even if your child is falling asleep at 8pm and waking up at 6am, getting their full 10 hours a night, they may be waking once or twice during that period to go to the bathroom, or because they are having a nightmare, which means they are not getting the most out of their 10 hours in bed each night because it’s not being spent in a deep sleep.
Without getting too in-depth into the science behind our sleep, it's important to understand the very basics of how our brains work during sleep.
Sleep has two main phases – REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-REM. The REM phase, which we spend about a quarter of our sleeping lives in, is where we have vigorous brain activity which leads to vivid dreams.
We spend most of our sleep in the non-REM phase, which has three or four distinct stages, that grow gradually deeper throughout the night making it increasingly difficult to be disturbed.
Hence, if you wake up in the middle of the night as you are in your second stage of sleep, then you have to start this whole process of falling into a deep sleep from the beginning which means you spend less time actually in this deep state of sleep where you get the rest that your body truly needs.
If your child isn't getting the quality or quantity of sleep needed, then you can get a sense of this by assessing them the following morning. If they are groggy, struggling to get out of bed, in a bad mood, still tired etc. then, the chances are, they did not have a good night's sleep.
What might be preventing your child from getting a good night's sleep?
There are many reasons why your child might be struggling to get to sleep or stay asleep at night and trying to identify the cause of the issue will make it easier to address and, hopefully, resolve.
One of the most common reasons amongst children for not wanting to go to bed, or stay in bed, is separation anxiety or fear of missing out (FOMO). Children, particularly under the age of 10, throw tantrums at bedtime or keep climbing out of bed after you tuck them in, because they don't like to be left alone or they feel as though they are missing out on something whilst their older siblings or parents stay awake.
There are a few tips and tricks you can try to overcome this such as staying with your child until they fall asleep so that they are not left alone whilst still awake, reassure them that they will not be missing out on anything or just offer them something as a source of comfort like a blanket or teddy bear to keep them company until they drift off.
Alternatively, your child may be struggling with a sleep disorder of some kind such as sleep apnea, insomnia, sleep terrors, sleepwalking or nightmares. In these cases, you will need to seek professional, medical advice on how to best cope with any of these as they are more complicated issues than separation anxiety.
We have written a couple of helpful little blogs which explore what to do if your child has insomnia and what to do if your child has night terrors or nightmares.
Other factors that could be affecting your child's sleep include medical issues such as asthma, stress or anxiety which keeps them up at night or snoring.
These are long term challenges that you and your child will need to learn how to overcome in order to improve their sleeping habits over time.
On the other hand, there are more short-term issues such as a new-born baby crying the middle of the night or a heatwave making their room uncomfortably hot. These are a little easier to manage because they are external factors that won't exist for a long time and will organically go away (i.e. as the new-born baby grows up, they will eventually sleep through the night).
No matter what the challenge is that your child is facing, it's vital that you take the time to help them overcome it so that they can get their required number of hours of good quality sleep every night.
To learn more about how to make sure your child is getting enough sleep every night, check out our previous blog post ‘How To Make Sure Your Child Is Getting Enough Sleep’.