Are You Good at Counting Sheep?

“Sleep! Sleep! beauty bright
Dreaming o’er the joys of night ”
— William Blake

“Counting sheep” is a phrase that is deeply engrained into our culture’s notion of sleep. I thought an article on healthy sleep habits was a relevant topic for parents who sometimes struggle with getting their youngsters to bed. Did you know that our magnificent bodies have a biological clock inside of them? As living organisms, we co-ordinate our activities with a day-night cycle caused by the rotation of the earth.

Starting in the late afternoon, changes in our biological clock start preparing us for sleep. We receive less natural light, our body temperature lowers, there is a decreased need for oxygen, and a natural hormone secreted by the pineal gland called melatonin is released. All of this together produces sleepiness and gets us to sleep. The right amount of sleep helps us to be in a better mood, more alert, creative, productive, have better concentration and memory, and feel more energetic. When we do not get enough sleep we become irritable, moody and inattentive. The effect is even more apparent in children. Kids who do not get enough sleep can become hyperactive, prickly or even aggressive. Sometimes tiresome children are just tired children.

Sleep is important for children because:

  1. There is a growth hormone that is released when sleeping
  2. They will be better able to concentrate and learn at school.
  3. Going to bed late tends to result in distracting dreams
  4. Lack of sleep can cause a tendency to be overweight
  5. It is important for memory development and consolidation of the events of the day.
  6. It effects a child’s executive functioning development.

Below is a chart of the average sleep requirements from birth through adolescence. Notice that teens need about nine hours of sleep which challenges the myth that teens don’t need as much sleep. In fact they need more sleep in this physically and emotionally challenging developmental stage. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many. Dr. Chris Idzikowski with the Edinburgh Sleep Centre comments on a study about teen’s sleep habits: “What we are seeing is the emergence of Junk Sleep – that is sleep that is of neither the length nor quality that it should be in order to feed the brain with the rest it needs to perform properly at school.” Lack of sleep also directly affects older teens’ reaction times and judgement when they are learning to drive vehicles, which can be lethal weapons.

1 week 16.5 8
1 month 15.5 6
3 months 15 5
6 months 14.25 3-4
9 months 14 3
12 months 13.75 2-3
18 months 13.5 2
2 years 13 1-2
3 years 12 1
4 years 11.5
5 years 11
6 years 10.75
7 years 10.5
8 years 10.25
9 years 10
10 years 9.75
11 years 9.5
12 years 9.25
13 years 9.25
14 years 9
15 years 8.75
16 years 8.5
17 years 8.25
18 years 8.25

Here are some helpful hints for a bedtime routine:

  1. Have a winding down period that includes a
  2. For younger children, encourage them to have their own choice of pyjamas and a favourite toy and choose an enjoyable book to read together.
  3. Find some relaxation CDs for children or let them listen to white noise or nature sounds, such as the ocean, waterfalls, dolphin and whale sounds or the songs and rain forest birds or sounds. This is soothing and can induce sleep.
  4. Make sure your child avoids TV or any other screen time a few hours before bedtime. Remove TV, playstations, Nintendo gameboys and electronic gadgets out of your child’s bedroom. It is too stimulating to the brain and it will take longer to fall asleep and affect the quality of sleep if they engage this way too close to bedtime or if they fall off to sleep with the TV and computer turned on. I have seen in my own practice that this happens all too often, and has negative consequences on the child’s health and the family’s sanity.
  5. Certain dairy foods and carbohydrates such as a nice warm milky drink is a good source of tryptophan, an amino acid, which is thought to help induce sleep as it is a naturally occurring sedative.
  6. A nice warm bath 90 minutes before bedtime is excellent to include in the sleep routine.
  7. Let your child wear socks to bed, if appropriate. This may reduce night awakenings as the feet often feel cold before the rest of the body.
  8. Read your child something very light but uplifting and positive to help create a good mindset before they fall asleep. Reading anything too stimulating or suspenseful can be arousing. It is also a lovely time to have one-to-one attention which makes them feel loved and more secure. After you are gone, they can listen to a recorded tape story of your voice reading, or they can listen to other calming books on tapes that go off automatically.

Here are a few more tips for good sleep habits:

  1. Make sure your child avoids activities before bedtime that are frustrating; like doing homework that they are upset about or losing on their computer games or gameboy.
  2. It’s best that your child does not eat too close to bedtime, especially if it is a heavy or spicy meal. In my opinion fizzy drinks should rarely be consumed and even chocolate should not be consumed before bedtime.
  3. Regular exercise is great for your child as it has been shown to improve sleep. Exercising for at least 30 minutes everyday can help your child fall asleep. Studies show exercising in the morning is the best. With the busy mornings of getting a child off to school, hopefully the school has a good physical educational component. The rule of thumb is not to exercise for at least 4 hours before bedtime, as it may keep your child awake. The weekends are a great time to exercise together as a family.
  4. Make sure your child has no drinks containing sugar before bedtime. The sugar can be stimulating and can raise blood sugar and inhibit sleep. Later, when blood sugar drops too low your child might wake up and not be able to fall back asleep. The fluids can contribute to bed wetting and tend to accumulate in the mouth. This can cause tooth decay.
  5. Make sure, even in winter time that there is some fresh air at night as the central heating can cause a lack of humidly and cause problems with sleeping. Open a window slightly and if possible, have a humidifier on which can serve as background white noise which is helpful for lots of kids when sleeping.

Here are some websites to purchase self-hypnosis tapes and books for your children to help get them to sleep at night.

This is a very helpful video on healthy sleep by Dr Feldman who is the Medical Director of the Stramski Sleep Disorders Centre.

The BBC has a fun test to help determine your reaction time. It’s called Sheep Dash

This will be the first of series of articles on sleep issues. Until next Monday, have fun counting sheep!

Image: A painting of sheep in a field

O bed! O bed! delicious bed!
That heaven upon earth to the weary head.
~Thomas Hood, Miss Kilmansegg – Her Dream.

Thanks for taking the time to read this Monday’s Motivational article.

Please feel free to send me any comments or your own stories you wish to share, or post your comment to the site by leaving a comment below.

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