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Sleep and Children

Updated: Mar 12

By: Shelley Nortje (Clinical Psychologist)

There are many questions that new parents face concerning their child and where they should sleep. What does sleep mean for children? Should the child sleep alone in their own bed? Is co-sleeping helpful or harmful? How can I help my small child get enough restful sleep? Do children dream? This blog will help you to start thinking about sleep as an important part of your child’s daily routine.

Sleeping alone versus co-sleeping:

There is very mixed research regarding whether sleeping alone or co-sleeping is healthier emotionally and physically for one’s child. This debate has become quite a controversial one! Some research suggests that sleeping alone is safer, allows for more restful sleep and develops independence in the child. However, sleep can also be considered as a separation for small children where they must separate from their mother and father in order to fall asleep. The idea of sleeping can then sometimes lead to feelings of anxiety in children. This may be more possible if there has been a recent traumatic separation such as an illness or loss in the family. It is important to handle sleep with the same support and kindness as any other separation, with preparation, routine and consistency.

On the other hand, there is also evidence that suggests that co-sleeping promotes secure attachment and high self-esteem. There are pros and cons of both of these options, and new parents are encouraged to think about their lifestyle and what they feel will be a better fit for their family. In many families for example, where there is not space in the home for each child to have their own bedroom or bed, sleeping arrangements may not be so simple. In instances where parents and children share one bed, sleeping alone might feel unfamiliar and scary.

Some helpful sleep hygiene tips for children:

  1. Create rituals:

Rituals such as reading a story together before bedtime, is helpful for you and your child to prepare for bedtime together.

  1. Make sure to have ‘special time’ together with your child during the day:

Daytime closeness such as eating together or playing a board game as a family helps children manage with the separation of a bedtime ritual.

  1. Establish a routine for sleep time:

Routines can help children know what is expected and also prevent them from becoming emotionally upset – children (and adults) are more likely to throw tantrums when tired. 3-5 years old typically sleep 11-13 hours at night, while 6-13 years old need about 9-11 hours of sleep.

  1. Limit screen time, especially in the hours before bedtime.

  2. When your child needs extra reassurance:

If your child needs extra reassurance, for example when they are ill or after a school trip away, check in on him or her every few minutes. This time can be extended as the child gets older and is better able to manage separations.

  1. Sleep and dreaming:

Some parents may not believe that their children are able to have dreams. However, all children dream, and their dreams can sometimes give us some insight into their feelings, fears and desires. Talking to your child about their dreams or nightmares may help you to develop a closer relationship and foster trust with your child and their inner world. When your child shares a nightmare, try to understand your child’s fears. Dismissing them or making fun of them will make your child less likely to open up about what is worrying them.

Some helpful websites on sleep and sleep disorders:

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