The Secret of Sleep

7am; bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to take on the world. Or so we should be. The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher was famously said to have run the country on a mere four hours sleep. Whilst stumbling into the office with sleep still in your eyes might work for many an adult; sending children to nursery and school without the required amount of sleep can be detrimental to their growth. According to the Millpond Children’s Sleep Clinic, a good night’s sleep is just as important to their well-being and development as healthy eating and exercise.

From one week old, right up to sweet sixteen, the amount of sleep you need decreases, for an eight year old, the approximate amount of sleep needed is 10 hours, 15 minutes. Sleep problems are all too recurrent in children, from initially falling asleep to waking in the night, but sleep and paediatrics is a growing area of occupational therapy and something that family and children’s charity Cerebra, aim to help address.

Cerebra give families who have a child with a brain condition the chance to find a better life together. Families who have a child with a neurological condition, learning difference or development delay often experience problems with their child’s sleep. Cerebra offer a Sleep Service to provide support to families. Our team of Sleep Practitioners can provide parent presentations, workshops, sleep clinics, telephone support, and in some cases home visits to discuss the sleep difficulty.

Sleep for some children is just like any other skill that has to be learned, taking time and patience, and repeating many times before it becomes mastered. When a child isn’t sleeping well it can have a huge impact on the child and the whole family. The child may find it difficult to concentrate at school, be irritable and or hyperactive. For the parents, lack of sleep can put pressure on their relationship and low mood/depression can occur. Therefore adequate sleep is important for everyone and this is where Cerebra as a team step in to offer support.

The main sleep difficulties that the team see are problems settling to sleep initially, trouble maintaining sleep (night waking), difficulty sleeping alone and/or early rising (before 6am).

One aspect that can have a huge impact on sleep is having an effective bedtime routine that lasts no longer than an hour. It is important to turn off TV/computers/tablets and phones at least an hour before sleep time. The ideal routine would start with a quiet/calming activity, then a light supper, a bath followed by moving into the bedroom and putting on Pyjamas and then lastly reading a story, or using massage or other relaxation techniques.

When it comes to early rising in particular, we have some tools that we often recommend which include travel black out blinds that can sucker onto the window glass and you can take anywhere with you, and sleep training clocks which indicate when it’s morning and night-time, which can be particularly useful in the summer months. For all areas of sleep problems, using rewards can be very helpful and increase the chances of success. Children, like adults, respond well to motivation, especially when it comes to change. Rewards don’t have to be expensive and can be as simple as praise, a sticker chart or pocket money for example. The important thing is that you use a reward that you know your child is motivated to achieving.

When trying to change sleep patterns, we normally suggest to do this gradually. His one example of a family that have used this technique from one of the charity’s Sleep Practitioners:

“Twelve-year-old Stephen who has ASD lives with his parents in Birmingham.  His main sleep issue was waking up very early (around 4am) and not being able to go back to sleep.  His parents encouraged him to go to bed and try to sleep and he was very good at staying in his bed but he did not feel tired.  As a result he was very tired and almost falling asleep by tea-time at 5:30 but kept awake by his parents until around 8:30pm/ 9pm, which was very hard, work.

“I spoke to Stephen’s mum Alice on the telephone for thirty minutes to support them in putting some strategies together.  They were advised to try a much earlier bedtime for a temporary basis, by following Stephen’s natural sleep pattern (the time he feels tired and sleepy), and then to make gradual changes.

They tried a bedtime of 5:30pm to start with and moved this by fifteen minutes each day until they got to 8:30pm. They found that by moving the bedtime gradually, this resulted in gradually waking up later in the morning, finally reaching 7am. This was a big achievement for the family, as this problem had being going on for many years.”

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