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As any parent knows, a tired kid can act cranky, moody, hyper or just plain sleepy during the day. A lack of sleep not only affects children’s behavior the next day, but long-term it can affect their health too. Sleep deprivation in children is associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety, high blood pressure later in life, changes linked to type 2 diabetes, behavior issues in school and impaired cognitive function.1 2 3 4 Getting adequate sleep is a core behavior for a healthy and happy child. There are numerous gentle and effective ways you can support your kids when sleep troubles set in.
Trouble sleeping, in most cases, is a symptom of imbalance. This is especially true in children, so start with some basics of good health. Make sure they are eating a healthy diet, one that is full of vegetables, fruits, quality proteins, and healthy fats. Equally important is to make sure they avoid artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives; added sugar; and caffeine (including chocolate before bed)—all of which can interfere with sleep. Getting regular exercise is another way to support children’s sleep (and overall health). Kids don’t need to go for a run or to the gym, but they should be encouraged to engage in active play or sports regularly. Finally, daytime—ideally morning—exposure to sunlight is extremely helpful too. Early morning sunlight exposure helps to set the wake-sleep cycle, making bedtime easier. This can be easily accomplished by walking or riding a bike part or all the way to school, having breakfast outside or even just 5-10 minutes of morning outdoor playtime.
We all need to unwind at the end of the day and children are no exception. Help prepare your child for sleep by creating a nighttime routine and sticking to it. Bedtime routines might include reading a book with a parent, a bath, a gentle neck and shoulder massage, or just time spent talking about a child’s day. At the very least it should involve a regular bedtime and should avoid the use of electronic devices one hour before bed. Use of electronic devices, such as phones, tablets, gaming devices, TVs, and computers, before bed is associated with later bedtimes, decreased sleep time and poorer sleep quality, partly because these light-emitting devices suppress the sleep hormone, melatonin.5 And children are more prone to the sleep-reducing effects of blue light at night than adults are.6
We all sleep best in a comfortable environment, so take a minute to evaluate your child’s bedroom environment. Bedroom temps should be cool but comfortable (approximately 65° F at night) and dark. Ideally electronics should not be used in the bedroom, but if that is not possible, create a little space somewhere besides the bed for using electronic devices. The bed should be reserved for sleeping and possibly bedtime routines (like reading or massage).
Stress and anxiety are real sleep killers and unfortunately children are not immune. Children can experience pressure at school, with friends, and easily pick up on their parents’ anxiety. When we’re stressed, the hormone cortisol is raised, and this can alter the natural ebb and flow of the wake-sleep cycle. Start by modeling appropriate behavior around stress management and teach your kids how to manage their stress too. Children can benefit from deep breathing and meditation techniques just like adults. For more details on how to support your child’s mental wellness, check out the Customer Literature File Children’s Nutrition—Mental Wellness.
When kids need a little extra support to get a good night’s sleep, the herbs chamomile (Matricaria recutita), lavender (Lavandula spp.), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), catnip (Nepeta cataria), linden (Tilia playphyllos), and/or milky oat tops (Avena sativa) are all excellent for helping children relax so they can sleep.7 Herbs can be administered to children as a tea (sweetened with honey if desired for children over 1 year of age), added to bathwater (place herbs in a sock and then steep in the bath), or added to dream pillows; or, look for children-specific herbal sleep tinctures that can be taken directly or added to water.
Essential oils can also be effective sleep aids for kids. Roman chamomile (Anthemis nobilis), lavender (Lavandula spp.) and mandarin (Citrus reticulata) are relaxing essential oils appropriate for children of all ages.8 Use one or a combination in a spray bottle mixed with water to spritz pillows and sheets before bed, in a diffuser to scent the bedroom, or mixed into a carrier oil and added to the bath or used as a massage oil.
Magnesium is known as a calming mineral. Magnesium supports many aspects of health. In times of stress or when anxiety is a problem, it also promotes sleep. Magnesium might be especially helpful for children who have trouble sleeping due to growing pains.
The hormone melatonin is most famously known for making us sleepy at night, but it also plays many other important roles in the body. Melatonin directly and indirectly affects the body’s antioxidative defenses, blood pressure, body temperature, cortisol rhythm, reproduction, and immune function.9 Because melatonin is a popular sleep aid for adults, parents often wonder if they can give it to their children too. The short answer is yes, but with caution.
There are not very many high-quality studies evaluating the safety and efficacy of melatonin in children.10 Most research on melatonin and children has focused on children with neurodevelopmental or psychiatric comorbidities (especially Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, and neurogenetic disorders). Fifty to 75% of this population reports experiencing sleep trouble and, in these children, melatonin does appear to be effective at reducing the time it takes to fall asleep and increasing the total time slept.11 12 13 There are a few long-term studies of children using melatonin supplements, with no ill effects on development seen.14 15 However, there is still some question about the safety of long-term melatonin use in children. One of the concerns stems from studies that have found melatonin supplementation in animals to affect sexual maturation.16
Non-pharmacological sleep support (like the tips above) are effective most of the time for kids, and it is generally agreed that they should be tried first. Most experts recommend that melatonin supplementation in children be a last resort and used only long enough to help reset a child’s wake-sleep cycle.
For parents who have tried everything and want to give melatonin a try, start with a low dose of melatonin, such as 1 mg, approximately 30 minutes before bed and adjust as needed. The most commonly reported side effects of melatonin supplementation in children are headache and daytime sleepiness.17 18
Growing bodies need lots of sleep and you might be surprised to learn just how much. According to the National Sleep Foundation, including naps, infants need 12-15 hours, toddlers need 11-14, and preschoolers need 10-13 hours of sleep. Older children need 9-11 hours and teenagers need 8-10 hours a night. A few little tweaks and some natural sleep support can help make this possible for your child.