Much evidence has documented that poor sleep in children is associated with academic underachievement and poor emotional and behavioral regulation. But how does one increase the amount of sleep children get and improve the quality of that sleep?
Changes in how sleep is managed by parents (e.g. earlier and more consistent bedtimes) are effective but often difficult to implement in today’s busy households. Changing the environment of the bedroom is another way to improve sleep.
One change that has been recommended by many researchers and professional groups, including the American Medical Association (2012), is to limit the amount of time children spend in their bedrooms using televisions, computer monitors, and smart phones. One obvious reason for this recommendation is that use of these devices in the evening is a big reason children stay up later.
But there is another reason. Recent evidence shows that exposure to blue light coming from those screens can delay the release of melatonin, one of the body’s ways of inducing sleepiness (Cagochen et al. 2011). So using these devices in the evening is not only incompatible with sleep but may delay falling asleep once the child finally puts down the phone or turns off the television. Reducing the time children spend in the evening exposed to these screens may be hard to enforce but beneficial for all children and especially helpful to improve sleep for children who have learning and behavior problems.
Many other ideas have been proposed for making the sleeping environment more conducive to good sleep. The National Sleep Foundation (http://www.sleepfoundation.org/) has launched a new part of their website called Inside Your Bedroom: Use Your Senses! http://bedroom.sleepfoundation.org/index.php
For each of the five senses there is a link to a page showing ways to improve the bedroom to make it conducive to good sleep for children (and adults). For example, for the sense of sight, six topics are discussed: 1) How light affects sleep; 2) Making your room dark; 3) How electronics affect sleep; 4) Sunlight and sleep; 5) Help your child sleep by controlling light; 6) Bedroom light and shift workers. For hearing, the topics are 1) How noise affects your sleep; 2) What is white noise; 3) Television and your sleep; 4) How to manage noise pollution; 5) Family noise.
Other topics relate to the sense of touch (bedding), taste (late night eating), and even smell (allergens can affect breathing and sleep). For each topic there are a few paragraphs and links to supporting research. There is no single best way to have children sleep longer and better. Fortunately there are many possible ways, and this site contains more ideas than I have yet seen in an easily accessible place.
American Medical Association (2012). Light pollution: Adverse health effects of nighttime lighting. Report 4 of the Council on Science and Public Health (A-12). http://www.ama-assn.org/resources/doc/csaph/a12-csaph4-lightpollution-summary.pdf
Cagochen, et al. (2011). Evening exposure to a light-emitting diodes (LED)-backlit computer screen affects circadian physiology and cognitive performance. Journal of Applied Physiology, 110, 1432-1438. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00165.2011