T. Atilla Ceranoglu, M.D.

On Sleep

How to help your child develop healthy sleep patterns

Three out of every four US teenagers are not getting enough sleep. Although we do not yet know for sure what sleep does for our brains, it is certain that memory and learning is greatly affected by how well one sleeps. Scientists showed that those who get a restful sleep retain the learned information more efficiently. On the other hand, sleep deprivation and irregular sleep patterns can lead to emotional and physical problems, from a weakened immune system to trouble with memory.

Despite all we know about the benefits of regular sleep, the very mechanism of sleep remains unclear. Most youngsters who report sleeping poorly often have at least one “night owl” parent at home. This does not come as a surprise, as we know sleep process has biological explanations and is influenced by genetics. Furthermore, children usually adopt their parents' attitudes towards sleep, resulting in similar ways of handling sleep among family members.

Then, how can we ensure our children and teenagers are getting enough sleep? Although the best training for healthy sleep pattern starts in infancy, it is never too late to help our children adopt a sleep routine.

Begin from yourself. Model healthy sleep-related behaviors to your child. How you handle sleep is a very powerful teaching tool. Show your child that bed is for sleeping (and vice versa) by avoiding naps on the couch, in front of the TV or elsewhere other than your bed.  

Help wind down the mind. Our brains need to wind down in order to fall asleep. Establishing a bedtime routine with low-key activities can serve this purpose. A warm  bath and reading a story are good examples. Some children may need a little snack or a warm drink to calm down before sleep. Just make sure they brush their teeth afterwards.

Be sure to avoid bedtime becoming the only moment your child experiences your full attention. This may lead to the dragging of bedtime. If this becomes an issue, make sure you schedule playtime earlier in the evening so your children will not feel that bedtime is the only part of the day they have you.

Avoid electronics in the bedroom. For older children who love video games or cell phones, establish a curfew at which point all devices and consoles are shut down. Kids who play video games close to bedtime take longer to fall asleep. Likewise, electronic devices in children's bedroom are associated with increased likelihood of sleep problems. Determine a date with your child to move the gaming console and the laptop to another room in the house.

Adopt a sleep friendly lifestyle. Weekends may be times where most kids prefer to stay up late and sleep late. This may throw off their sleep routine. Remember: One cannot force sleep onto someone, but can push wakefulness. Just make sure you help your teenager wake up close to his or her weekday time.

Avoid caffeinated drinks. These also include decafs, as they may have 40% of the caffeine in regular drinks. Caffeine tends to stay in the body for about 8 hours, thus, half of an innocent afternoon beverage will still remain in the body and interfere with sleep.