For their physical, mental and emotional health, make a priority of your little ones getting good sleep, especially in their first years of life.
Medical Advisors: Blair Ortiz Giraldo – Pediatrician and Pediatric Neurologist.
Olga Rocío Vásquez Guerrero – Pediatrician, practitioner at Coomeva Private Healthcare.
Because their perspective of life is set in the present and not in the future, for children, going to sleep is almost like losing out on everything that happens or could happen in the outside world. This is one of the challenges parents face, as making sure their children get good sleep, is like a passport to good health.
As pediatric neurologist and pediatrician at the San Vicente Fundación University Hospital in Medellín, Blair Ortiz Giraldo explains, a series of proteins are synthesized while children sleep, allowing them to restore different functions and recover from the exhaustion they have accumulated from their day. “Deep sleep is the period when you learn from what you have experienced during the day. We only grow in the first two decades of life, and that growth is greatest in our first years of life. When we sleep, we release growth hormones as well as other hormones that restore our balance – including cortisol – so that the body is prepared for stress. These hormones function at the internal and external level of our sexual organs, while others regulate the balance of ions, water and our blood sugar, to name a few.”
It is important to understand that every hour of a child’s sleep must be quality for it to fulfill its functions, which means that sleep must be uninterrupted so that its phases take place in the right order. Studies show that getting good sleep impacts how we learn, our attention spam, our mood and, of course, our development.
The latest dynamics and our current pace of life are leading to a gradual loss of this culture of good sleep habits, even among children. “This era of technology where screens are everywhere exposes children to them at increasingly younger ages. All sleep habits are learned from the example set by parents. Not having these sleep habits makes our children more susceptible to behavioral and learning disorders, where problems with school performance and with concentration can occur – as sleeping is what strengthens our memory, allows our brain to mature, and helps us to recover our energy and biological functions,” says pediatrician Olga Rocío Vásquez Guerrero.
The keys to good sleep
There is an expected number of hours children need to sleep, depending on their age. In their first two years of life, for example, babies spend more than 70% of their time sleeping and the more they grow, the less time they spend sleeping. Experts recommend the following guidelines:
Newborns: can sleep 17 hours a day, mostly intermittently, for 2 to 6-hour periods.
Infants: From 3 to 6 months of age, the amount of time they sleep is approximately 15 hours a day for 4 to 5-hour periods. At six months, this decreases to about 14 hours, 12 of which are at night with brief periods when they awaken and naps in the morning and afternoon.
1 to 3 years: 13 to 14 hours per day, including naps.
4 to 5 years: 10 to 13 hours a day. In some cases, they stop napping, as some children go to school at this age.
6 to 12 years: 10 to 12 hours a day.
13 to 18 years: 8 to 10 hours a day.
The idea is to form habits. Try not to interrupt their rest periods, create good sleep hygiene practices and establish a routine for going to bed at the same time, even on the weekends. “At four months, children should already have an established sleep routine,” Vásquez suggests. The following are some recommendations:
- Newborns should always sleep on their backs to avoid the risk of sudden death. In their first months of life their crib can be in the same room as their parents. Afterwards, the recommendation is for newborns to sleep in their own space. “The risk of sudden death is higher up to three months of age. When the baby begins to develop its motor skills and seeks out having its own position, its normal movements should not be interrupted,” our pediatrician explains.
- Avoid doing very intense activities with your baby before putting them to sleep. Their last feeding should be light, about three hours before bedtime.
- For those under age one who wake up at night to eat, the recommendation is not for their parents to wake them up, but to let the baby be the one to interrupt their sleep on their own. Night feeding is also not recommended.
- Seek out sleeping environments without any lights (even dim lights), screens or background music. The child should sleep in spaces that are as natural as possible. Vásquez recommends against having screens in the rooms of children under age two.
- Eliminate stimuli such as movies with complex contents. “Do not let children get used to doing intense activities or watching television programs at bedtime. Instead, read calming stories with them” Ortiz advises.
It is no secret that the effects of poor sleep lead to the gradual onset of diseases over time. As the Sleep Medicine Institute of Spain indicates, with children between ages two and four, poor sleep increases the symptoms of otitis, rhinopharyngitis and bedwetting. It is also associated with learning, language and growth problems; a greater chance of childhood obesity; headaches; low self-esteem; shyness; a bad attitude; and a low tolerance to frustration.
It is important to emphasize that children with sleep problems are often diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity, “In these cases, because the child is not learning, they become impulsive due to the main underlying issue: a sleep problem” Ortiz states.
“It has been proven that contact with the light from screens before going to bed, such as tablets or cell phones, disrupts sleep and makes people resistant to going to sleep. This is known as behavioral insomnia,” Blair Ortiz Giraldo.
Pay attention to the warning signs
In order to know whether a child is sleeping well or not, in addition to their external manifestations such as bags under their eyes or falling asleep easily anywhere, look out for one or several of the following warning signs: being resistant to waking up (if it takes longer than 10 minutes), waking up in a bad mood, having low energy, being distracted or irritable, hearing statements that they are tired, or being behind in school.
6 years old is the average age in which children tend to stop napping and is when the time they sleep at night becomes more important.