Between the ages of around three to five, a child’s sleep patterns begin to change as their brains undergo a very significant shift in the organisation and timing of their slumber.
As time goes on, they will stop napping, which is a big change of gears. But needing daytime naps less and less as they grow older does not always mean that they’ll arrive at bedtime willing or able to sleep.
Amazing things happen to our bodies when we’re asleep which are crucial to our survival! The body works to repair muscles, organs and cells, while chemicals that strengthen the immune system circulate throughout the blood. Cortisol, the hormone tied to stress, decreases as we sleep and, for children, the level of growth hormone will increase.
During sleep the neural pathways that allow us to create and maintain memory will communicate with one another to store information. Poor sleep means that these crucial processes are not occurring as they are meant to, which can have significant consequences for any adult, let alone a small child.
At this critical developmental stage in their lives, kindergarten aged children will need about 10-13 hours of sleep nightly. Anything less than this can not only affect their mood and behaviour (parents will already know this from dealing with a cranky, teary child!) but can have a major impact on their learning ability… most significantly on their memory.
Poor sleep creates a domino effect that needs to be disrupted early
At four years old, kindergarten programs focus on school readiness. Number and letter patterns are learned, children acquire more vocabulary, their motor skills are challenged, as are their alertness and attention and ability to retain information.
Their working memory is really starting to fire up as they build upon knowledge they’ve acquired. Continued bad sleep will inevitably impact a child’s memory and their ability to retain and apply their knowledge… which can, in turn, affect their self-esteem.
Top Tips for Sleep Health
- If you haven’t already, start putting a consistent bedtime routine in place straight away!
- Stick to bed times even on weekends and school holidays
- Bedtime should have pleasant associations: hugs, a snuggly blanket, cosy pyjamas, a cuddly toy, dim lighting, projector or night lights, stories, soft music
- Your child should spend at least the last hour of the day away from screens and bright lights… a night light or lamp can set a calming atmosphere for quiet activities
- Children sleep best in a cool (not cold) room where they can snuggle up
- Make sure your child has eaten no less than two hours before bedtime and avoid sugary snacks in the later part of the day
- Warm milk before bed can help (but not after teeth brushing)
- Ensure your child is receiving enough sunlight especially first thing in the day, exercise and nutritious food (but avoid overly physical activities at least two hours before bed)
- Some children can feel scared or anxious at bedtime. Give them some power over their routine, such as choosing a story, choosing their pyjamas, choosing a toy.
- A reward chart for a child who resists bedtime can be a real motivator: a tick or a star for every night as they settle into their routine can be rewarded after five consecutive nights (but keep recognizing the routine until it becomes second nature.)