Sleep is one of the most important requirements in a child’s development. Healthy natural sleep for children stimulates growth, brain development, memory and alertness and strengthens the immune systems. Children who get enough sleep are more likely to function better and are less prone to sleepwalking, nightmares, behavioural problems and moodiness.
For children in care, the experience of trauma may mean they have difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep. Babies can be hard to soothe and settle and can wake, crying, throughout the night. Children and young people may be frightened to fall asleep (especially when alone or in the dark) and may experience nightmares, bedwetting and sleep disturbances caused by traumatic images (flash backs). They may have sleep problems (such as lying awake or waking suddenly) that have been useful strategies to keep safe in the past - but that are no longer useful or necessary.
These children may need some extra support to feel safe enough to fall and stay asleep and to develop the habits that will help them to sleep well. Here are some tips to help:
Let children try out new ideas to cope with being frightened at bedtime: e.g. extra reading time, radio quietly on, a night light, listening to a CD in the middle of the night to help them get over a nightmare.
Reassure older children that feelings of fear or behaviours that feel out of control or babyish (e.g. bedwetting) are normal after a frightening experience and that, in time, they will pass.
Provide a quiet, relaxing place for babies, children and young people to sleep, and turn off electrical stimulation such as televisions, mobile phones, computer screens and loud music at least one hour before bedtime. This can help their mind and body to relax.
Avoid scary TV shows, movies, computer games or books before bed.
The Raising Children Network provides the following general tips to help children and young people get a good night’s sleep.
Keep regular sleep and wake times
If the child is six months or older, help them go to bed and get up around the same time every day. Keep wake-up times on school days and weekends to within two hours of each other. This can help the child’s body clock get into a regular rhythm.
Avoid daytime naps for older children
If the child is five years or older, avoid daytime naps. Daytime naps longer than 20 minutes can make it harder for them to get to sleep at night, to get into deep sleep, and to wake up in the morning.
Relax before bed
Encourage the child to relax before bedtime. A regular bedtime routine of bath, story and bed helps babies and younger children feel ready for sleep. Older children might like to wind down by reading a book, listening to gentle music or practicing breathing for relaxation. This helps the body get ready to catch a ‘wave’ of sleepiness when it comes.
Encourage good health and nutrition
Eat the right amount at the right time
Make sure the child has a satisfying evening meal at a reasonable time so they do not feel hungry or too full before bed. This can make their body more alert or uncomfortable and make it harder to get to sleep.
Get plenty of natural light in the day
Encourage the child to get as much natural light as possible during the day, especially in the morning. This will help produce melatonin at the right times in the sleep cycle. A healthy breakfast also helps to kick-start the body clock.
Encourage your child to avoid caffeine – in energy drinks, coffee, tea, chocolate and cola – especially in the late afternoon and evening.
Do some exercise
Physical activity and exercise help children aged 2-15 years to sleep longer. It’s not a good idea to play sport or be active late at night, though: the stimulation and increase in body temperature can make it harder to go to sleep.
Common Sleeping problems for babies and toddlers
Managing sleep for babies and children is one of the most common concerns for parents and carers. The following tip sheets and websites have more information that can help you to understand and deal with children’s sleep issues.
NT.GOV.AU has the following tip sheets:
Sleep and your child: zero to six years
Early Childhood Australia : for information and resources to help you understand and deal with sleeping patterns and common sleeping problems for babies and toddlers
The Raising Children Network website has lots of information about sleep behaviours, problems and routines for newborns, toddlers, preschoolers, and school age children (visit the ‘Sleep’ page in each of these categories) and for pre-teens and early teens (visit the ‘Health and Wellbeing’ pages in these categories).
SIDS and KIDS website: for brochures and information on safe sleeping (including resources for Aboriginal families).