Health Promotion

Prioritizing Consistent Sleep To Support Mental Health

By: Alyssa Nycz, MD

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) recommends that children ages 6 to 12 receive between nine and 12 hours of sleep during a 24-hour period. Teenagers should regularly sleep eight to 10 hours per night. However, research finds that at least one-third of children under the age of 10 are not achieving optimal sleep, and this number increases to over two-thirds of children and adolescents ages 10 and above.  Prioritizing consistent sleep routines for children and teens is critical to supporting their mental health.

Research Supporting Consistent Sleep Routines

Many studies have examined the consequences of inadequate sleep in children and teenagers. A lack of sleep correlates with negative physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive outcomes. At an early age, sleep is necessary for proper development of a child’s language, memory, attention, and behavior. As a child ages, inadequate sleep may be linked to physical manifestations, such as obesity. School-aged children who obtain the recommended amount of sleep each night have improved attention spans, behaviors, and emotional regulation, all of which are needed for a child to stay alert and focused during a school day. On the other hand, inadequate sleep has detrimental effects on both emotional status and mental health, as shorter sleep durations impair a child or teenager’s ability to regulate his or her emotions.

No child or adolescent is immune to the detriments of inadequate sleep. Studies suggest even the highest-achieving high school students sleep about one to three less hours than guidelines recommend, and their high grades may come at the cost of their mental health. When inadequate sleep leads to outcomes including delayed development of language and memory, shortened attention span, behavioral and emotional dysregulation, and obesity, children and teenagers are predisposed to experiencing a range of negative thoughts and emotions. These may include frustration or lack of interest in school or extracurricular activities, dissatisfaction or insecurity with one’s physical appearance, and inability to navigate and build resilience in stressful scenarios.

It has become a well-recognized fact that the rate of children and adolescents burdened by mental health concerns continues to rise, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the waiting list for mental health resources becomes longer, we cannot afford to skip the small steps towards promoting the mental health of our children and adolescents. As pediatric medical providers, educators, mentors, and parents, we need to prioritize our children and adolescents’ sleep routines. This begins by paying closer attention. What time are our children starting to get ready for bed? Are they falling asleep when we think they are? Do our children’s moods appear to suffer on nights when they have a later than usual bedtime, or no bedtime at all?

Encouraging Consistent Sleep Routines

Helping our children achieve optimal sleep requires structure and consistency:

Develop a nightly routine. Make sure your child knows when it is time to start winding down. Allow for some quiet time before bedtime, with reading or music. Minimize screen time within this routine, particularly in the hour leading up to bedtime. While your child can be allowed flexibility within this routine, it should be clear that you as parent or guardian are ultimately in control of bedtime.

Once this routine is established, keep to it. Though weekends are often thought of as time to catch up on sleep, adhering to a similar schedule (sleep and wake time within one hour of what is routine during the week) will prevent the need for significant amounts of “catch up” sleep on weekends.

Most importantly, listen to what your child is, and is not, saying. Is your child expressing feelings of tiredness or fatigue? Do you notice your child becoming easily frustrated with daily activities, or demonstrating a wide range of emotions over the course of a day? Your child may be lacking the sleep required to perform to his or her potential. 

When we start being mindful of our children’s routines (or lack thereof), we may begin to make progress towards creating consistent bedtime habits. Regardless of age, the mental health of our youth depends on it.

Read more articles on the Advancing Kids Blog about health promotion.

Alyssa Nycz, MD, is a resident physician at Connecticut Children’s and the UConn School of Medicine.

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