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Teaching kids the importance of sleep

At night when most kids were dozing so deep,
Michael could never quite manage to sleep.
His mother would read him one book, or two, His father would sing ‘till his face turned blue,
All day Michael ran and played and kicked ball,
But then he’d just shrug: “I’m not tired at all.
By Sigal Adler

Does this sound familiar? Michael is not alone in being one of many kids resisting sleep at bedtime, or just generally regarding sleep as a nuisance, an interruption to the fun that needs to be had. Kids are told to ‘go to bed’ and ‘go to sleep’ maybe with ‘you’ll be tired tomorrow’ added, but that’s pretty much the end of it. It’s no wonder that many children think of being sent to bed as a punitive, boring, enforcement. Yet sleep is so much more than a way to end the fun. Sleep makes us happier, less irritable, more energetic, and more likely to be functioning at our optimum. So why aren’t we telling our kids this?

There is evidence to suggest that educating children about the importance of sleep and the benefits, leads them to sleep more. For example, two ‘sleep smart’ studies conducted with seventh graders were found to be effective in improving sleep health efficacy, time in bed and bedtimes. Studies have also been conducted on kids as young as 4-years-old through a program called Sweet Dreamzzz. The kids received two weeks of daily education sessions (being taught the right time to go to bed and why) and supporting activities such as putting a teddy bear to bed each night and reading bedtime stories. A month after the conclusion of the program the kids were getting 30 min of additional sleep each night, which can make a big difference to behaviour and emotional stability.

Kid concentrating

What can I do at home?

In simple terms (that kids can understand), we sleep to keep us healthy, happy and doing our best. But what is important for kids to know?

Why we sleep.

The National Sleep Foundation teaches that sleep helps our body and brain develop and grow, so it may help to talk about the brain and body individually. Try to give context, so they can relate it back to things to school or preschool.

  • Explain that the brain needs sleep to remember what they’ve learnt that day and needs to prepare itself so they can pay attention, concentrate and think of new ideas the next day.
  • The body needs sleep so their muscles, bones and skin can grow, fix injuries and of course, stay healthy and fight off sickness.Children piggyback play

Analogies are also useful - just like a car, our gas tank should be full in the morning and empty by the end of the day. Just as parents have to go to the service station to fill the car, we’re filling up our own tank while we sleep and a full tank gives you enough energy to stay busy and do your best the next day.

How sleep works.

Obviously, the ins and outs of how sleep works can get pretty complex and the level of detail totally depends on the age of your child and the sophistication of their understanding. A preschooler may struggle with the concept of sleep cycles for example! But as a starting point, it’s good to give your child the understanding that your body and brain are not just resting while you sleep, they are in fact, active and busy getting ready for a new day.

sleeping child

Sleep and YOU

Helping your child understand that they can be their best when they get enough sleep is really the main goal. This creates a positive association with sleep and gives it a clear purpose. Provide them with examples of both the benefits of getting enough sleep i.e. better moods, more creativity, increased ability to pay attention and get along with others, versus the negatives of not getting enough sleep i.e. grumpiness, difficulty making correct choices, less patience and inability to concentrate.

Child skipping in house

Sleep Tips

It may be useful or relevant to explain that most people have trouble sleeping once in a while but that there are some things you can do to help yourself sleep well. Things like a consistent bedtime routine, avoiding a big meal before bedtime and ensuring that the bedroom is cool, dark and quiet are just a few tips to help get a good night’s sleep. Together you can implement these things if you’re not already doing them. For an older child, it may be worth explaining that some children and adults can still have trouble getting a good night’s sleep even when following all the sleep tips. These people may have a sleep disorder. In these cases, talk to your parents and a doctor.

If you’re still having trouble with these conversations, visual aids may help. Our YouTube search revealed a bunch of different animated videos tailored to children to explain the importance of sleep and the result of not getting enough sleep. For even more help refer to our Inspiration ideas for helping kids sleep. Alternatively trying speaking with their school, or with your GP.


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