Teaching good sleep habits

Jun 6, 2009 at 1:08 p.m. ET

If getting your children to go to bed is a war, don't give up. Their health and development depend on it.

Sleeping Baby

Inadequate sleep is detrimental to health

According to Dr Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park, New York, sleep is an essential factor in your children's health. While adequate sleep is important for all age groups, it's particularly key for young children, who are at a critical point of their physical, intellectual and emotional development.

Lack of sleep has a range of negative effects in kids, including irritablity, impatience, lack of concentration, impaired gross motor activities, carelessness on the playground or in sports, and a decrease in overall daily function. Likewise, sufficient sleep boosts immune function, physical development, cognitive function, emotional health and daytime focus.

"Sleep is important for a child's overall growth and development as well as emotional health," says Dr Adesman, who is also the author of the new book Baby Facts and founder of BabyFacts.com. "Although the body is resting during sleep, the brain can stay quite active -- and at times more so than during the day! Based on research in adults, it is believed that sleep in young children is important for immune function, growth and healing of body tissue, learning, processing of memory, and daytime attention/concentration. Inadequate sleep can compromise a young child's emotional and behavioral health and well being."

Setting a consistent sleep schedule is key

As with many aspects of a child's upbringing, consistency is key in establishing and teaching your child healthy sleep habits. Dr Adesman says, "The younger the child, the greater the importance of consistent sleep schedules."

The pediatrician recommends making your child's bedtime and wake-up time about the same every day, including weekends, to set your child's internal clock. Children who have regular sleep and wake times also feel more rested. However, Dr Adesman does encourage flexibility. In the case of occasional special events, allowing your children to stay awake longer than usual is not going to affect them negatively in the long run. You can always adjust their wake up time or nap schedule to ensure they aren't deprived of shuteye.

Prepare your child for sleep

To help your children establish healthy sleep patterns, make the time leading up to sleep conducive to winding down and preparing for bedtime. Dr Adesman advises against high-energy activities late in the day, because they can be stimulating physically and mentally. He also suggests avoiding caffeinated products several hours before bedtime and making sure your child doesn't go to bed hungry. (Feed her a light snack if she ate an early dinner.)

Bedtime rituals, such as an evening bath and bedtime stories, can help children transition from wake to sleep. For younger children, including a favorite stuffed animal can help them associate sleep with comfort and security. An hour before bed should be quiet time that includes these bedtime rituals. Soothing activities before bedtime better ensure restful sleep as well as your children's attitudes toward it. Also, keep your child's bedroom quiet and dark (other than a night light), and at a comfortable temperature.

Make sure your child is ready for sleep

Because every family is different and each child's sleep and developmental needs are unique, there is no one ideal bedtime for children. Talk to your pediatrician about how many hours of sleep your child needs, and consider how best to fit this into the family and child's schedule.

Dr Adesman also recommends that you make sure the bedtime you set for your children isn't only for your convenience. Be sure your child is ready for sleep. Trying to get children to go to bed when they aren't tired increases the likelihood of bedtime struggles. Be sensitive to your child's biological clock as well as to the wake and sleep times that work best for the family.

Establishing good sleep habits with your children will not only benefit their overall health and development -- it will teach them to value the importance of sleep now and into adulthood.