It seems impossible that fall is here, but the changes are all around us. Leaves are turning color. Birds are flying south and many animals are going into hibernation for the winter. We like to think that humans are the most intelligent of all species, but their attitudes towards sleep make me wonder.
Animals instinctively go into the deep sleep of hibernation to make it through the long cold winter. Humans also have specific sleep needs but they aren’t quite as good about meeting these needs. At birth, infants sleep 18 – 20 hours a day. Their sleeping and waking behaviors are much alike and they usually sleep for only about two hours at a time. As children grow their sleep behaviors change. They are more alert during their wakeful periods and they sleep sounder during their rest periods. By pre-school age they should be sleeping through the night. Their need for sleep has decreased, but emotional and physical health still requires 10 hours of sleep at night and an additional 2 hours during the day. Children, not having the instincts of a bear, may resist going to sleep for reasons which have nothing to do with need. Serious sleep problems should never be ignored as they are frequently a symptom of a problem in some other area of a child’s life. It is more likely, however, that sleep problems are just a result of adult attitudes and expectations.
Sleep problems start on that first night home from the hospital. New parents frequently assume that every night cry requires food and attention. Legitimate needs should never go unmet but night time fussing may just be practice of self-comforting skills. Parents frequently go to great lengths to keep infants up during the day hoping for an early bedtime but infants increase their sleep periods gradually during both day and night. Shortening daytime sleep periods also keeps them from extending their night time sleep periods. Unnaturally long periods of wakefulness over stimulate the infant so that relaxation and falling to sleep are difficult.
When older children refuse to go to bed, or to stay in their bed, it is not usually a special problem needing a special solution. It is the same challenge to authority and routine that is repeated by the child in other areas throughout the day. Tired parents, however, feel they just don’t have the energy to handle this pint-sized rebellion and they give in to tantrums. A firmly enforced bedtime is necessary for both children and parents to get the rest needed to cope with life.
A commonly held myth among parents is that refusal to sleep is proof of a very bright or exceptionally mature child. Parents brag that their child hasn’t taken a nap since he was a toddler. They worry that school time is being “wasted” on naps and use boredom as an excuse for naptime misbehavior. Learning to rest is as important a skill as anything else learned throughout the day. Rested children play and learn better. Lack of sleep is in fact related to lower grades. In a survey of 3000 high school students, those getting mostly A’s and B’s got 7 hours, 21 minutes of sleep. Students getting mostly C’s were getting 7 hours, 4 minutes and those getting mostly D’s or lower were getting only 6 hours, 48 minutes. Every parent is aware that tired children have more behavior problems and scientists are now researching a link between too little sleep and Attention Deficit Disorder and Hyperactivity.
A quiet non-intrusive naptime provides time for children to mentally rehearse all the things experienced throughout the day, increasing the probability that the child will retain concepts. There is no excuse for boredom – a quiet, darkened room is the perfect setting for creative thinking and daydreaming.
With all the emotional baggage that sleep brings with it, it is not too surprising that naptime is not the most popular activity in the preschool schedule. Naptime, like every other part of the school day has rules and expectations which must be followed. Children are not required to sleep, but they must rest quietly and respect the rest of others. Even the child who doesn’t need to sleep does need time to emotionally recharge.
Naptime not only provides a time for rest but also encourages children to relax, let go of the day’s stimulation, and enjoy a time of quiet contemplation. If all adults had learned this lesson as children, doctors and drug companies might go out of business. Sleeping pills are the most frequently prescribed drug. The cost of doctor consultations for sleep-related problems just might pay off the national debt!
Why not move bedtime up a few minutes for everyone and see what happens?