- Researchers say young children who get at least 10 hours of sleep per night have a better transition into kindergarten.
- Experts point out, however, that many busy working families can struggle with getting their children to bed on time.
- They say limiting screen time and providing a consistent bedtime routine are among the ways to help children sleep better.
Young children transitioning to kindergarten could benefit from at least 10 hours of sleep per night, a new study suggests. That’s significant when you consider that more than half of children in the United States ages 6 to 17 get less than 9 hours of nightly sleep.
In their study, the researchers said children who slept 10 hours or more nightly had an easier time during their first kindergarten year socially and emotionally.
They also reported the children with adequate sleep had better learning engagement and performed better academically than kids who slept less than 10 hours nightly.
“These findings are more confirmation of the widely held position that sleep is essential to our overall functioning,” Michelle Hintz, PsyD, a child and family psychologist in Florida, told Healthline. “Sleep is important for helping regulate our appetite, hormones, and immune system. For children, sleep also contributes to emotional regulation, frustration tolerance, and general mood. Every parent can attest to knowing when their child is overtired and that is no fun.”
The researchers also reported that getting more than 10 hours of nightly sleep was particularly important rather than total sleep in 24 hours. In other words, your kids might not be able to nap their sleep troubles away.
That said, parents shouldn’t draw too many firm conclusions from this small study, said Dr. Rebekah Diamond, a pediatric hospitalist in New York City and assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University.
“What constitutes ‘good’ sleep or enough sleep is complex and different for each person and child,” Diamond told Healthline. “When looking at this study, or any study, it’s important to remember that correlation doesn’t equal causation. It’s not surprising to see that consistently getting 10 hours or more of sleep each night was related to better kindergarten outcomes because we do know how important sleep is for social interaction, learning, mood, and physical well-being.”
“However, there are limitations on how much we can conclude that this is causation based on the study,” she added. “There could be other factors contributing to better sleep and better school adjustment, for example. The study is also relatively small, so while it’s great to see data that helps support how important sleep is for kids, we can’t generalize too much. Sleep is important, but it’s just one piece of the bigger puzzle of kids’ health.”
Experts say that children might have a hard time falling and staying asleep for many reasons and there are limits to what you can control.
“[There could be] busy family routines in the evening, after-school activities, etc.,” Hintz explained. “This can be exacerbated when families have both parents working and multiple children with after-school activities and events. Parents’ work schedules often necessitate children attending after-school programs until 5 or 6 p.m., followed by running around to activities, dinner, baths, and then bed. For some families, getting children to be before 9 p.m. is nearly impossible.”
However, experts agree that parents should pay particular attention to screen time — using a computer, watching TV, or browsing a smartphone — right before bed. Studies have shown a link between screen time and disrupted sleep and learning.
“For children this age, sleep hygiene is a parent’s responsibility,” Hintz continued. “Fortunately, this is not difficult to accomplish since we are creatures of habit and thrive on routine. Children thrive on consistency. One of the most important recommendations is the elimination of electronics and screens (of any kind) at least 30 minutes before bedtime. That means choosing something other than joining your child for an episode of CocoMelon before turning off the lights.”
“There are countless reasons that sleep may be inadequate or low quality. Medical conditions and stressors can cause sleep issues. Consistent bedtimes with bedtime routines, limiting screen time in the bedroom and around bedtime, and working on promoting your sleep as a parent are some of the most important steps to take in optimizing your child’s sleep,” Diamond said.
While the study might not be large enough to prove a causal link between overnight sleep and kindergarten outcomes, experts say there is virtually no drawback to encouraging your children to get more and better sleep at night.
“Efforts to promote a favorable transition to first-time schooling should pay particular attention to sleep hygiene and regularity of 10-plus hours of nightly child sleep established before the start of Kindergarten,” the study authors wrote.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, for instance, recommends children between ages 2 and 5 get no more than an hour of screen time on weekdays and three hours on the weekends.
Hintz recommends a low-key three-step process for better bedtimes.
“Parents are encouraged to set up a three-step bedtime routine that maintains an order,” she said. “For example: bath, book, and bed. This is a wonderful time for spending quality time with your child. For 5-year-olds, this routine can take up to an hour but provides the opportunity for guilt-ridden parents to share snuggles and cuddles, stories, and giggles.
“Tucking a child into bed for the night should be a short, final step in the process rather than a long, drawn-out event,” she added.
And don’t feel bad about reaching out to your child’s doctor if you’re struggling, Diamond said.
“Any concern at all is always worth talking about with your pediatrician,” she explained. “It’s never your job to decide whether or not something needs investigation or treatment. Your worry is enough, so reach out to your kid’s doctor with any questions or concerns.”