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8 top tips to support your child’s sleep

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Discover top dietary tips and easy lifestyle changes from nutritionist Kerry Torrens to help your child drift off peacefully into a good night's sleep.

Just like us, children can experience trouble sleeping, but simple lifestyle and behavioural changes may make all the difference. Nutritionist Kerry Torrens takes a look at what helps promote restful slumber.

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What’s the issue?

Settling difficulties are common in as many as 25 per cent of young children, with resistance to bedtime or being unable to drop off to sleep being commonly cited problems.

How much sleep do kids need?

How much sleep your child needs depends on their age and activity levels. The following table gives approximate hourly needs however, your child may differ from this. If you have concerns, refer to your health visitor or GP for guidance.

How many hours per day children's sleep guide

What can I do?

It’s natural to feel anxious when your child can’t settle, but by putting some practical steps in place, you can ensure it doesn’t become a wider issue, potentially causing disruption for the whole household. The steps you implement will depend on the age of your child and the sleep or settling problem they have. Here are our top tips for a restful night.

1. Wind-down

As the evening progresses, encourage a wind-down. For older children this might involve reading or listening to music. The longer your child takes to go to sleep, the longer their wind-down time needs to be.

2. Establish a bedtime routine

Start your routine about 20 minutes before your child’s bedtime. If your child finds settling difficult, aim for this ‘bedtime’ routine to coincide with when they naturally start to get sleepy, and work towards gradually bringing that time forward to your preferred bedtime (for young children 7-8pm is a good time). For this age group, a bedtime routine might involve a bath, teeth clean and a bedtime story.

3. Promote a well-adjusted, regular body clock

Keep sleep and wake times the same, even at the weekends. By doing this you help develop your child’s natural body clock, which is important for sustaining a regular sleep cycle.

4. Avoid technology

This includes tablets, TVs, computer screens and mobile phones, because the light from these screens can have a stimulatory effect. This ‘blue’ light suppresses levels of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin, and delays sleepiness. Encourage children to turn these devices off at least one hour before bedtime, and preferably earlier, and keep screens out of your child’s bedroom at night.

A young girl using a tablet under the covers at night

5. Make the bedroom sleep-friendly

A peaceful, dimly lit room kept at a comfortable temperature (about 18C) is important for sleep. Start to dim the lighting as you near bedtime and especially as you prepare your child for bed.

6. Eat to sleep well

Feeling hungry or being too full are both reasons why children can’t sleep. What time your child eats their evening meal is also important because eating too late shuts off melatonin production and delays sleep. Ideally, have your family meal at least four hours before bedtime. Make it a satisfying meal, combining protein and carbohydrates to encourage melatonin production. The best protein foods are those that contain the amino acid tryptophan – these include chicken, turkey, milk and dairy. Enjoy these with a portion of rice, pasta, noodles or potatoes, as carbohydrate foods help tryptophan to work more effectively. If necessary, a glass of warm milk with a cracker or oatcake can be a good snack an hour or so before bed.

7. Avoid caffeine-containing drinks and foods (especially after lunchtime)

Coffee, tea, energy drinks and chocolate supply caffeine which is known to disrupt sleep, especially in certain individuals. Studies show that moderate to high caffeine consumers are more likely to have disturbed and interrupted sleep. Sugary foods should also be avoided because they cause sleep disruption.

8. Get plenty of natural daylight

This is particularly useful in the morning. This is because bright light suppresses melatonin, which means your child will feel awake and alert during the day and sleepy at bedtime.

Sleep-promoting dinnertime suggestions:

Slow cooker chicken casserole
Italian tuna balls
More family meal recipes

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This article was published on 3rd August 2020.

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

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All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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