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Sleep Tight

By Scott Hamilton, MD
March 3, 2022
Hamilton Blog Headshot Updated 12.21.21

The heavy metal band Queensrÿche's biggest hit wasn't a screaming head-banger, but ironically a lovely ballad about helping a child with nightmares control his dreams. The title “Silent Lucidity”, refers to lucid dreams wherein you're aware you're dreaming, and willfully turn them from scary into flights of whimsy. I did this as a kid, leaping into the air to fly above whatever monsters were after me.


Sleeping and dreaming are important to children's health. A good night's sleep helps kids stay awake in daytime, particularly in school. Well-rested kids are less irritable, more cheerful and adaptable to trouble. Good sleep also contributes to physical health-- kids grow better and feel better in their bodies. Unfortunately, Sleep Health has become a thing, since it's sometimes hard to achieve.


Sleeping through the night isn't automatic. For toddlers, it needs to be learned. Babies are up all hours for the first months of life, needing regular feedings for their supercharged metabolisms. Then when they're bigger and have more reserves, they sleep all night. But then, as their brains mature and become aware, they wake up in the middle of the night realizing their parents aren't in the room with them, and it's dark. Time to yell for help.


The hard part is getting frightened kids back to sleep. Comforting helps, but then as you tiptoe out, crying resumes. One solution is taking kids into your bed, so they're comforted throughout the night. This works if children sleep quietly, but what if they're kickers and thrashers? Then you're still losing your own sleep! These kids eventually need tough love, wherein you let them cry themselves to sleep in their own bed after some comforting.  In three or four nights, they'll start skipping the crying and fall back asleep quietly. It's easier, my tough mom said, with “two closed doors between you and children.”


Some kids like my son have “night terrors.” He'd start yelling some panicky sentences like “Get off me! Get away!”, and thrash like he was brushing snakes off. By then we'd be in the room holding him and he'd calm down and go back to sleep. Fortunately, night terrors usually only last a few minutes and even better, children don't remember them the next day.


Nightmares are a different story, bad dreams children remember. When nightmares get too frequent, kids become afraid to go to sleep. Nightmares are another cause of sleeplessness, like the initial toddler putting-themselves-back-to-sleep we discussed above. Of course, you'll go comfort your child when they wake up crying. Also, reassure them that nightmares aren't real, their bed is safe and that you're near. Regular and calm bedtimes help prevent them. No violent or intense shows, as these bring nightmares on. Finally, nightlights and stuffed animal guards can keep kids feeling safe and the monsters at bay.


How much sleep do kids need to stay healthy? Toddlers need 11-14 hours (including daytime naps), preschoolers 10-13 hours, school-age kids 9-12, and teens 8-10.  Less than that and children do worse in school due to daytime sleepiness, are more irritable, less happy and more vulnerable physically.


Finally, screens contribute to lots of sleeplessness. Many parents like treating kids with TVs in their bedrooms. Parents enjoy watching in their bedroom- kids too, right? True, but unlike adults, kids often don't know when to turn it off. Likewise, computers, video games and phones in bedrooms distract kids from calming down and sleeping well. Thus, for happier and healthier children, don't allow any screens in their bedrooms from the day they're born to when they leave for college. Read them books at bedtime instead. If you have trouble sleeping, all this stuff works for adults too!