Sleep Wonderful Sleep

Nov 9, 2016

We all know how important sleep is. And let’s face it: if your child isn’t sleeping, neither are you. You know how awful you feel when you don’t get your sleep. How about those days after, by some miracle, you actually got a full night of sleep? Oh, wow, does that feel good! You get everything done on your list, you’re in a great mood, and your happiness is contagious to everyone around you. It’s amazing the difference a night of sleep can do.

Now think about our kids. Not enough sleep, and they are miserable. They get whiny (more than usual) and crabby and bring everyone around them way down. Their schoolwork suffers as well. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, I’m sure. So let’s talk in more detail just what exactly happens with proper sleep and with the loss of sleep. Then we will go over some tips to help you get your children to bed. Of course, if your child is having chronic problems with sleep, it would be a good idea to speak with your health care professional and to make sure your child doesn’t have any health issues which need to be addressed. This blog is not intended to be a substitute for medical treatment, so have your child evaluated if you think there may be additional issues underlying sleep problems.

A lot of information is out there about sleep, and there is increasing research in support of its importance, maybe more than we realized initially. So much happens in our bodies when we sleep. It is time for restoration of our nervous system. We develop important hormones including growth hormones. We form new connections between nerve cells. We develop chemicals to help our immune system. And, very important especially for our children, we solidify what we have learned during the day into our Long Term Memory. So, to help retain and use the information our kids learn all day long, they need to sleep.

Sleep deprivation can be very harmful to our bodies in a variety of ways. There have been connections found between obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease and lack of sleep in adults. Even one night of sleep deprivation has been shown to affect an adult’s inflammation marker levels beyond just that next day. Cortisol levels (a steroid hormone naturally produced by the body) can be increased by sleep deprivation, which can increase a person’s cravings for salty/fatty/sugary foods. So, if you are dieting, make sure you are sleeping more to decrease your cortisol levels. Naps are not recommended to make up for sleep deprivation as a habit for adults, but up to 20-minute “power naps” are fine.

So, what is the recommended amount of sleep for which age? The Sleep Foundation ( recommends the following:

  • Toddlers (1-2 years):  11-14 hours
  • Preschoolers (3-5 years):  10-13 hours
  • School Age (6-13 years):  9-11 hours
  • Teens (14-17 years):  8-10 hours
  • Adults (18-62 years):  7-9 hours

Our bodies take cues from different sources to know when it’s time to sleep. Of all the cues, light is the most powerful. Many years ago, before electricity made it possible to “extend” daylight, we synchronized our wake cycles with the sun. When the sun went down, even with candle or lamplight, our bodies began to prepare to sleep. In today’s world, especially in the 21st century, with our many forms of electronic screens (smart phones, TV’s, computers, game screens, etc.) our body is fooled into thinking that it’s still daytime. So this thought takes us to the all-important question of, what do we do? If your child is having trouble sleeping, assess your bedtime routine, if you have one. Notice what went on the day/night before a good night of sleep and what was different on a bad night. It may be as simple as turning off the TV or other screens earlier. If taking in bright light through the eyes promotes wakefulness, you can imagine what a difference it could make to turn off the electronics and dim the lights. Some recommend doing this a full 2 hours prior to bedtime. Some of our kids, particularly those on the autism spectrum, find screen time to be extra stimulating and may benefit from drastically reduced or completely eliminated electronic play for a time to help them regulate.

Setting a routine for bedtime is usually helpful for children. Set it, keep to it, and begin your routine at least a half hour before bed. Your kids will know what to expect when you say it’s time to get ready (i.e. put on pajamas, brush teeth, choose a book). Can you offer a reward for getting ready without delay such as an extra story? Remember that positive rewards boost good behavior better than negative. Try not to let your child have stimulating food or drink (sugar, caffeine) close to bedtime. Caffeine may take up to 6 hours to leave the body, so watch those sodas! Regular exercise is great, but not recommended within 3 hours of bedtime. Make sure your child who likes to stay inside is still exposed to plenty of regular daylight to help keep his circadian rhythms (the body’s internal clock) regulated. Some kids are better able to wind down with a warm shower or bath before bedtime. Fill your evening with quiet play, cuddling and chatting. Offer quiet soothing music, and lower the general noise level of your household.

Our sensory kids often do well with some deep proprioceptive input before bed (see Proprioception Blog article for more information). This is not referring to highly active play. The type of proprioceptive activity that tends to be most helpful is that which is slow sustained input such as big hugs perhaps coupled with gentle slow rocking, or joint compressions. Ask your therapist to show you how to use a blanket to swaddle your child into a “burrito,” if she finds that calming. You have probably heard of weighted blankets or lap weights, and many find these to be invaluable at bedtime. There are sleep machines that provide “white noise” and also apps for phones and iPads which offer soothing sounds to help promote sleep. A method getting more and more press lately for adults and children is Mindfulness and meditation. There are many programs to choose from both in the community and online. And, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Dreampad Music Pillow from iLs, Integrated Listening Systems, a special pillow with music built into it that is made especially to promote sleep.

Sleep is a very serious subject, and a family that makes it a priority will certainly reap the benefits. It is not easy to change routines, but with improved behavior and overall health, you will find that your efforts are rewarded both for your children and yourself.

Nancy E.A. Weiss, MOT, OTR/L

Return to blogs.