Healthy Sleep

An A to ZZZZzzz guide to healthy sleep

As seen in Capital Parent Magazine

By Jason Haug, Program & Project Management Officer, Ottawa Public Health

There are a lot of things we don't know about sleep, like what kids are actually dreaming about when they are sleeping or when they might wake up with a nightmare. There are also a lot of things we do know.

Sleep is essential to a child's proper growth and development. According to Statistics Canada, there are strong links between short sleep times and childhood obesity. Sleep is also crucial for proper brain development, immune function, memory, emotions, and behaviour. 

How much sleep does my child need? 

Many parents have questions about how much sleep their child requires. Although there are general guidelines, the fact is that every child is different. The amount of sleep your child needs also changes as they grow. 

Children aged 4 to 10 need about 10 to 12 hours of sleep per night. Because staying up late might be very exciting for them, they may pull out the stops and try to delay bedtime. Preschoolers (4 to 6 years) may still need some time to transition away from naptime.

For more detailed information about how much sleep your child needs, check out the Canadian Paediatric Society's Caring for Kids website

How can I help my child sleep? 

Children need routines and consistency before bed. It's also a good idea to abstain from stimulating activities two to three hours before bedtime and putting away the electronics: playing video games, computer activity, and television or movies. Ensure that your child uses the toilet before bed; bedwetting can be common in this age group. Allow at least 30 minutes before bed for your child to wind down. Include things like bedtime stories, listening to relaxing music, or other quiet activities.   

The sleep environment plays a big role in helping your child sleep. Keep the bedroom quiet, dark, and comfortable. Try not to keep TVs and computers in the bedroom. 

To help prevent sleep problems, it's important for children to learn to fall asleep on their own. Make sure that you put your child to bed when he/she is still awake, but drowsy. Gradually take longer to respond when they cry, ask for things at night, or wake up. Positive reinforcement will go a long way in helping to set a bedtime strategy that works for your family. Evening snacks also play into quality of sleep and it's a good idea to avoid caffeine (chocolate, energy drinks, and pop) before bed. As a parent, remember to also try and get some sleep too!  

What are signs that my child may have a problem with sleep? 

It is easy to think that if a child wakes up during the night, it mean they might have an issue with sleep, but this is completely normal. Where it may become an issue is if it takes them a long time to fall back asleep. About 20 to 30 per cent of young children are poor sleepers, meaning that they may wake up often, cry, can't get back to sleep, and/or are fussy or demanding at bedtime. If sleep problems are not taken care of during early childhood (1 to 5 years), the problem could last for a long time. Poor sleep during this time can affect brain development, physical growth, and success at school. Be sure to ask your doctor if you notice your child is snoring loudly, sleepwalking, having seizures or night terrors, or breathes irregularly.

What should I do when my child has a nightmare? 

During the preschool years (4 to 6 years old), your child might start to have nightmares. Nightmares tend to happen after a stressful event, fever, or if kids are overtired. Make sure that you comfort and re-assure your children after a nightmare. Try rubbing their back, giving them their favourite blanket or stuffed animal, or playing soft peaceful music to help them fall back asleep. 

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