Improving the Quality of Your Children's Sleep

By FCPS and Fairfax County Government
October 26, 2020

Sleep quality can make the difference in maintaining a daily routine, promoting academic learning, and supporting general health. However, with the many changes that families have made in response to the pandemic and virtual learning at home, children may have more difficulty recognizing and following a set schedule which includes time for sleep.

When youth do not get enough sleep, they may experience problems with emotional regulation, mood, behavior, and academic performance. Important cognitive abilities for learning are more likely to be impaired, such as attention, memory, and planning. Lack of sleep may be observed as physical fatigue, rubbing at eyes, sleeping at a desk, or a shuffling gait. Less apparent signs of poor sleep such as irritability, poor attention span, and poor impulse control may be incorrectly attributed to other issues.

Youth have significant differences in the number of hours of sleep appropriate for their development. Here are sleep recommendations by age offered by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF):

  • Newborns (birth to 3 months) need 14 to 17 hours of sleep per day.
  • Infants (4 to 11 months) need 12 to 15 hours of sleep per day.
  • Toddlers (1 to 2 years) need 11 to 14 hours of sleep per day.
  • Preschoolers (3 to 5 years) need 10 to 13 hours of sleep per day.
  • School age children (6 to 13 years) need 9 to 11 hours of sleep per day.
  • Teenagers (14 to 17 years) need 8 to 10 hours of sleep per day.
  • Younger adults (18 to 25 years) need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per day.

There are many strategies that parents can implement at home that have been found to be effective in reducing sleep-related problems. Families and caregivers should pay special attention to the sensory factors that can negatively impact sleep, such as uncomfortable temperatures, bright lights, loud or sudden noises, eating too close to bedtime, and physically uncomfortable sleeping arrangements or bedding. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends these six research-based strategies to help improve the quality of your children's sleep.

  1. Talk to your children about their sleep. Open communication can help determine what is keeping children from sleeping and uncover ways to address any problems, such as changing nightly routines (e.g., homework is done immediately after school instead of after dinner) or removing distractions (e.g., providing a nightlight to replace the overhead light or keeping pets out of the bedroom). 
  2. Stay involved in monitoring your children's sleep. Parents often become less involved as their children get older and may be unaware of what time a child is actually falling asleep, particularly on non school nights. It is critical that parents take an active role in their children's sleep routines and schedule in order to help them establish healthy sleep habits. 
  3. Make sure there is enough time for sleep. Parents should set bed and wake times that allow for sufficient sleep duration based on the age for each child. Once school start times are known for the year, the best approach is to determine what time a child needs to wake up and subtract from that time the appropriate number of hours for sleep while accounting for the time it may take the child to fall asleep (e.g., 15 to 30 minutes). For example, if a child needs to get up at 6:00 a.m. and 10 hours of sleep are recommended, bedtime would be 7:30 p.m. (including 30 minutes for falling asleep). 
  4. Keep consistent bedtimes. Bedtimes should be consistent across the week. Bedtimes across weekdays and weekends should not vary by more than an hour. 
  5. Establish bedtime routines. Families should establish a bedtime routine that may include relaxing activities such as reading or bath time. Bedtime routines should reflect the following elements: (1) maintaining a positive home climate to support the child's emotional well-being, (2) encouraging children to fall asleep independently, and (3) having children use their beds only for sleep as allowing other activities to take place in bed creates a connection in the brain between the bed and being awake.
  6. Eliminate technology from the bedroom. This objective is twofold. First, using technology (e.g., phone, TV, or computer) is distracting and can keep children awake. Second, the blue light from electronics can affect the hormones responsible for making children feel sleepy. In addition, consider using applications on technology that reduce blue light near the end of the day. Many newer technology devices come with this feature built-in, but additional programs can be downloaded to regulate the color of light depending on the time of day.

The Healthy Minds Blog shares information related to youth mental health and wellness for an audience of parent, educators and community-based providers. Articles include tips and strategies for increasing wellness and resiliency, as well as fostering success at home, at school and in the community.

The Healthy Minds Blog is a collaborative project between Fairfax County Public Schools and the Prevention Unit of the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services. It is part of the Healthy Minds Fairfax (see below) initiative, designed to support emotional wellness in youth and families.

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