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How much is enough? Help your kids get a good night's sleep

Pediatrician Dr. Lisa Thornton shares her tips for identifying whether your child may suffer from a sleep disorder and offer suggestions to help them fall asleep.

Poor sleep in kids has been linked to a raft of problems later in life, including obesity, learning difficulties, and the risk of mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders and depression.

A study in the April issue of the Journal of Sleep Research found that kids who didn’t get enough deep sleep had more behavior problems which continued to be an issue a year later. Kids who got good sleep were more adaptable than those who did not.

It’s not as if the message is being lost on parents. An article in the Wall Street Journal noted an increase in the number of kids showing up for overnight studies in sleep clinics.

With so much at risk, parents may be wondering when they should toddle the toddler off to a specialist. TODAY took a closer look at the issue with Dr. Lisa Thornton, an assistant professor in the departments of pediatrics and surgery at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine and medical director of pediatric and adolescent rehabilitation at KidsRehab, a joint program between and LaRabida Children’s Hospital, and Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital.

While most kids have occasional problems sleeping, you might want to take a closer look if “your child has things like night terrors, sleep walking, or excessive snoring,” Thornton said on TODAY. “Those can be signs of a real problem, a sleep disorder that needs to be managed medically.”

The occasional bout of snoring isn’t an issue, Thornton said. But, if you can hear your child snoring a room away, it could be a sign of sleep apnea, a condition in which your child will periodically stop breathing. 

The lack of oxygen during those moments is what jolts kids (and adults) awake in the middle of the night. “You wake up and try to breath again and you never get into that nice deep sleep that you’re supposed to get into,” Thornton said. “And that leads to excessive daytime sleepiness. Even if they’re in bed all night they wake up exhausted.”

Thornton listed signs indicating that a child might have serious sleep problems.

  • Loud snoring and sleep walking
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Falling asleep at inappropriate times
  • Behavioral problems
  • Learning/concentration problems
  • Moodiness, anxiety

Thornton reminds parents that children need a lot more sleep than adults do.

“Children sleep a lot, especially babies,” she said.  “Babies sleep between 14 and 16 hours a day, including naps. So they may seem to be awake a lot but they just awaken frequently. And that’s normal. In preschoolers you want about 12 to 14 hours of total sleep a day. And once they’re in school 10 to 12 hours a day is what kids really need to be fresh and aware and not cranky.”

How can we help our kids get the sleep they need? Thornton suggested a few tips.

  • A cool, dark room is best
  • Very little stimulation
  • Quiet in the house if possible
  • Make bedtime a habit/routine
  • Give time to let your child’s brain calm down
  • Allow time for your child to sleep

And remember, Thornton said, that it can take time for a kid to fall asleep. “Some people think you’re supposed to get in bed and fall asleep in five minutes,” she added. “It takes about 20 minutes of just relaxation to fall asleep.”

If you follow all the good sleep rules and “your child still seems to be having daytime sleepiness, crankiness, trouble paying attention, bad behavior problems, those are things to discuss with your physician to see if they might be linked with sleep,” Thornton said.

And if you do decide to take your child to the pediatrician, “a good thing to do [ahead of time] is to keep a sleep log,” Thornton said. “Measure when does the child actually sleep and when are they awake. That will give us a really good clue as to whether this is a problem with sleeping or something else.”


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