Sleep is one of the top reasons that parents seek health advice in the early years, and no wonder. Sleep problems are common in the early years and when young children are not well rested then their parents probably won’t be well rested either. When that happens, both parents and young children tend to have poorer health and wellbeing.
But talking about sleep ‘problems’ suggests that we know all about the sleep that is right for children – and we don’t. Our group at the Centre for Community Child Health at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute wanted to find out. Then, parents have the information that they need to help them and their children get the best sleep, which helps everyone’s health and wellbeing.
There are sleep guidelines that recommend the total amounts of sleep that children should get at different ages. But these guidelines are based on children’s average sleep patterns, not on the relationship between children’s sleep and their health and wellbeing.
We looked at the sleep of more than 3,000 Australian children aged four to nine years, who are all part of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. (You might have heard of this study because of the ABC TV program Life at 9, and the ones before it, Life at 7, 5, 3, and 1.) Part of this study is a detailed diary that parents fill out to record every activity their child does over 24 hours. This diary includes their child’s sleep.
What we found surprised us. There were no clear associations between how much children slept and their behaviour and emotional wellbeing, their quality of life, their weight or their academic ability, or parents’ own emotional wellbeing. This told us that the amount of sleep alone is not the most important thing for health and wellbeing. However, we know that children who have sleep problems have poorer health and wellbeing, so if it’s not the amount then which part of sleep is the most important?
Our next step was to think about exactly what parents talk about when they say their child has sleep problems. They often say that their child has difficulty getting to sleep at the start of the night, or getting back to sleep when they wake up during the night. Could it be that the timing of sleep (going to bed and waking up) or the amount a child wakes during the night and how long they are awake for, are the most important parts of sleep for health and wellbeing?
This is what we’re investigating now. By finding this out, we hope to give parents and health professionals better information on the best ways to manage children’s sleep for everyone’s health and wellbeing.
For more information about children’s sleep and how to manage it, please visit the fantastic sleep pages at the Raising Children Network (listed by age group, e.g. newborns, babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers, school-age), or speak to your GP or child and family health nurse.
Further reading: Frequently asked questions about children's sleep and health
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