Scrolling their way to sleep: what every parent needs to know about kids, sleep and screens

26 March 2021

Today, parents face unprecedented challenges in ensuring their children enjoy a good night’s sleep – thanks to widespread bedtime tech use. So if your child struggles to get their Zzzs, you already know you’re not alone.

In this article, we explore why sleep is so crucial for your child, signs that they’re having sleep issues and how to overcome common obstacles.

Thanks to Positive Psychology Centre psychologist, Martha Mack, for her expert insights on this important issue.

But first: why is regular good sleep essential for growing bodies and minds?

Sufficient sleep is vital for a child’s overall health and development.

In fact, studies show that kids who regularly get an adequate amount of sleep have improved attention, behaviour, learning, memory and mental health.

That’s because when we sleep, we engage in important processes – such as repairing our cells.

If children fail to obtain enough sleep on a regular basis, you’re likely to see a decline in their attention span, memory, learning and mood.

What is considered ideal sleep for a child? 

For a child to achieve optimal sleep, they need to check four boxes:

  1. Falling asleep in less than 30 minutes (it should typically take 10 to 20 minutes)
  2. Obtaining the necessary amount of sleep for their age (see rough guide below)
  3. Maintaining continuous sleep (not tossing and turning or waking up in the night)
  4. Entering the deep sleep REM state

So how much sleep do children really need?

Well, the younger the child is, the more they need. Research tells us that children who are:

  • 3-4 years old need 10-13 hours of sleep
  • 5-9 years old need 10-12 hours of sleep
  • 10-13 years old need 9-10 hours of sleep
  • 14-18 years old need 8-10 hours of sleep

What are the signs that your child is having sleep issues?

Contrary to what many people think, when a child isn’t getting enough sleep, they can actually become hyperactive during the day.

A child wants to stay awake. So they’ll fight their natural response of sleepiness by becoming more active.

Also, the more tired a child is, the more distressed they’ll become – as they try to counter the consequences of their insufficient sleep. This distressed behaviour can create various problems.

Other signs of sleep issues include struggling to stay focused or lacking motivation. This is something that a teacher might notice at school.

What causes poor sleep in children?

There are many reasons your child might be struggling to get a good night’s sleep.

These days, the most common cause is widespread use of technology like TV, computers, iPads and mobile phones before bed.  This is due to the blue light they emit, which suppresses melatonin production – a crucial hormone that regulates the sleep cycle.

Like many adults, many teenagers also sleep with their phones under their pillows – or right next to their beds. This can wreak havoc on your child’s sleep, as they become attentive to text messages as they are falling or asleep or while sleeping.

And if your child has ADHD, dyslexia or other developmental disorders, they’ll probably find it even harder to fall asleep and sustain it. Research has shown that sleep problems often co-exist in these children, and may even heighten their symptoms.

Other factors such as stress levels or anxiety can also cause poor, fragmented sleep.

What can you do as a parent?

There are various things you can do to help encourage a good night’s sleep in your child.

This includes establishing clear expectations about bedtimes. You can also make sure their bedroom is dark enough and set at the right temperature.

But what about the difficult task of limiting phone use?

As a parent, the hardest thing about this topic is bringing it up without alienating your child. You should approach the conversation in an understanding way but also consider implementing some boundaries, like limiting phone use 1 to 2 hours before bedtime.

And of course, if you need some professional help, reach out to a psychologist. They might suggest video recording your child’s sleep to get a better idea of what’s going on. Or investing in specialised sleep-tracking devices.

A psychologist can also investigate if there are other underlying issues at play, such as stress or anxiety.

If you’d like some qualified sleep support for your child, our psychologists are here to help. Please call us on 1300 995 636 to make an appointment.