Sleep Matters

By Dr. Shefali V. Parmar

This is my first installment in a series that I hope you will enjoy and learn from.

For those of you who know me (and my 10-year-old daughter, Kajal), you also know that by 7 o'clock in the evening we are winding down in our house, reading books, and getting ready for bed. By 8 pm, she is snuggled and ready to drift away into her dreams where I promise to join her later in the night.

It is a routine that we rarely stray away from because we know how much each night's sleep is important to her (and our) growth, brain development, mental health, and general well-being.

The benefits of daily overnight rest are immense; prioritize sleep for your children and yourselves.

Sleep is crucial for the mind and body to grow and repair itself. It is in our sleep when our memories are consolidated, our bodies grow, and brain develops. Those children that get adequate night sleep have shown to perform better in school as a result of better attention span and ability to handle stress. In fact, sleep keeps our mental health in check, too.

Sleep deprivation can lead to mental fatigue and contribute to symptoms of depression and anxiety. Those children (and parents) that are better rested, generally exhibit better temperament, energy, and positive mood.

Infants and children need to be taught to sleep. These are learned habits that parents will reinforce. Starting around four months of age, your infant will have a sleeping pattern or rhythm. Start setting a regular time for a bedtime routine. Night routines often include bath, books, brushing teeth, and lots of cuddles.

I like to massage my baby, too. Once you have placed your infant in her crib, allow her to self-soothe to sleep. Place your infant in the crib while she is getting drowsy, but not asleep. Sticking to your routine allows your infant to know what to expect in terms of rest time and wake time. Don't let your child get overtired as it will be harder to ease them into sleep. If anything, start early!

As children get older, they may start to have other activities to attend and resist bedtime. Continue to prioritize bedtime. Avoid over scheduling afterschool activities. Allow downtime for unstructured play. Protecting your child's sleep during the school week will enhance their school performance. Schedule activities on the weekends and prioritize school, homework, and sleep during the week.

I realize this is easier said than done but sleep is important even for us parents. We know that our bodies are less stressed when we are fully rested. Our cortisol level (stress hormone) stays nice and low with good sleep. In fact, research has shown less heart disease and better blood sugar control in those that achieve adequate sleep. We eat better and make healthier decisions when we sleep well. We also know that adolescents and adults have improved emotional resilience when better rested.

So how much sleep does everyone need to gain the benefits aforementioned? Infants and children benefit from 10 to 12 hours overnight; adolescents need 8 – 10 hours; and adults need on average of 8 hours of rest overnight. However, each person has different needs – some need more sleep while some need less.

Keep track of your sleep and how you or your child is feeling the next day. Aim for full energy, positive spirit, healthy eating, mental sharpness, and good school or work performance.

At times, children and adults have a hard time falling asleep. Set a schedule with a routine wake up and bedtime. Being physically active during the daytime also helps induce great sleep, but avoid exercising just prior to bedtime. Avoid eating a late dinner. Also, importantly, avoid screen time (TV, phones, iPad) at least an hour before bedtime. Give your children and yourself some time to wind down from the day's activities.

As a family, playing board games, working on a puzzle, or praying are relaxing ways to bond and prepare for the night's sleep.

If you or any of your family members are struggling to get good rest, seek guidance from your family Pediatrician or Physician.

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Dr. Parmar is a Duke trained Pediatrician at Cornerstone Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine in Cary, NC. Email: shefali.v.parmar@gmail.com