A healthy diet and exercise are crucial to the health of a growing child. But another leg on the tripod of good health is proper sleep. Creating a maintaining a good sleep schedule is an important health issue for children.

“If kids don’t go to sleep on time, they tend to wake up late and not be ready for bed on time the next night,” says Dr. Shalini Paruthi, a SLUCare sleep expert and pediatric sleep specialist at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center. “Sleep deprivation can also cause them to lose focus and make more mistakes at school.”

Parents know that babies need a lot of sleep and spend many hours slumbering, although most new parents wish their baby put more of those hours together at one time. As children grow, they require less sleep and begin to establish a more regular sleep schedule. Natural sleep patterns shift with age, which is why teenagers are more apt to stay up late and sleep in the next morning.

However, consistency is important, and parents should help their teenagers avoid all-nighters. “Parents should encourage their kids to have a sleep routine, just as much as they counsel them about their eating habits and sports activity,” says Dr. Joel Koenig, chief of pediatrics at Missouri Baptist Medical Center. “It’s best that children wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends. That means going to bed about the same time every night, as well.”

Koenig also advises parents to discourage or disallow the use of caffeine or other non-prescribed stimulants. Paruthi adds that kids should be told to put their electronics away at least a half-hour before bedtime. “The light on the screen can inhibit the production of melatonin. Using electronic devices can stimulate brain activities, which can make it difficult to fall asleep,” she says.

In a perfect world, all this would be simple. But kids have demanding schedules with early morning wake-up calls for school and activities or homework that keep them up late. Sometimes, fatigue is the unavoidable result.

In that case, a short nap the next day can help, Koenig says, as long as it’s not allowed to go on too long and disrupt regular bedtime patterns. “Half an hour to one hour is enough,” he says. “Most of the time, the youngster will be so tired that he or she falls into deep sleep very quickly. It’s the deep sleep that’s refreshing, not the hours of light sleep that occur in longer naps. Many highly productive people take catnaps. Thomas Edison didn't sleep many hours in a row at night, but would take a brief snooze two or three times a day.”

If a child doesn’t want to go to bed and makes the usual excuses—having to go to the bathroom, being thirsty or being afraid of the dark, for instance—Paruthi suggests using the ‘bedtime pass’ strategy. “Each night, at the time of lights out, the child is given two passes, which he or she can use each time they need to speak with a parent or get out of bed,” she says. “If the child is able to keep one or both passes until morning, then each pass can be redeemed for an incentive. Great incentives include stickers or five minutes of extra TV time.”

While creating a healthy sleep routine for your child, remember that kids, like adults, have individual needs. “One size does not fit all,” Koenig notes. “Some people need more sleep and some less. The key question is, ‘How does the child feel?’ If there is chronic fatigue, then there’s a problem. If sleep hygiene counseling doesn't help, perhaps a medical or even psychological evaluation is in order.”

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