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Most parents know that sleep is important for children's wellbeing. Adults, and parents in particular, generally value sleep and know too well the way it affects our own emotional wellbeing when we don't get enough sleep. But how important is sleep to your child's happiness?
The 2017 BTN Happiness Survey conducted by the University of Melbourne and Behind the News TV program involved 47,000 Australian children. It found that sleep was the biggest indicator of happiness—getting enough sleep made children twice as likely to report feeling happy lots of the time.
“These results provide compelling evidence that sleep is a key indicator of child wellbeing," said Associate Professor Lisa Gibbs, the Chair of The University of Melbourne Children's Lives Initiative, in an interview with ABC News.
Before you start getting anxious about whether your child gets the prescribed amount of sleep for their age, it's important to remember that children who sleep well tend to feel safe and secure. In the survey results, children who did not feel safe were four times more likely to have atypical sleep patterns, meaning they slept too much or too little for their age group.
Related: A month-by-month guide to baby sleep
While the survey shows the importance of improving your child's sleep habits for their emotional wellbeing, it also continues to highlight the role of feeling safe and secure on general wellbeing. Helping children with anxiety, stress and trauma is important.
The survey also found a range of things help children feel happy including family, friends, music and sports. Younger children were significantly more likely to report that family, reading and artwork were sources of happiness. Cooking and being in nature were also linked to feeling happy for girls. Boys were significantly more likely to report sports and computer games helped them feel happy. Pets were also identified by many children in all age groups and gender as a source of happiness.
So, what can you do to improve your child's sleep?
These are the tips I recommend in my clinical psychology practice that are based on the psychology of sleep and children's developmental needs:
1. Provide a safe and secure relationship with your child
Children who feel safe and secure generally have a good emotional bond with their parents. Find ways in each day to connect with your child. Spend time doing things with them and really noticing them. Repair ruptures that happen between you and your child as quickly as possible. Many a child has worried at night that their parent blames them for everything or doesn't like them anymore.
2. Have a regular bedtime routine that supports good sleep habits
Set bedtimes that are consistent with the amount of sleep your child needs help. Developing routines that prime children for bedtime helps too.
For example children might know that every night after dinner they brush their teeth, play a game, and then have a story read with their parent prior to being tucked in to bed. These routines provide a sense of predictability which encourages a sense of safety and reduces children's anxiety about bedtime.
3. Ensure your child gets enough physical activity
Moving your body is a helpful tool in encouraging sleep. It helps use up physical energy, but is also positively associated with the brain chemistry people need to manage stress and anxiety and sleep well. Most schools have some daily exercise program but children may need more than what is provided.
4. Reduce exposure to technology two hours before bed
In this every increasing technological world it is not uncommon that children spend significant amounts of time looking at screens. The portability of these devices means they often find their way into bedrooms. Screens emit blue light which can prevent production of melatonin. Melatonin production is necessary for falling asleep at the right time. By preventing access in the two hours before bed your child is more likely to go to sleep at the right time.
5. Remove electronic devices, such as iPads, from your child's room at night
Many electronic devices emit noises and have notifications that can occur at all times through the night and can wake your child up. Electronic devices are very tempting for children and many a sleepless child has been found on a device at night. When your child is exposed to blue light from these devices, it signals its daytime to your child's brain and is not conducive with going back to sleep.
6. Ensure anxiety and past trauma are treated
If your child is not sleeping due to anxiety or past trauma, seek treatment. Make contact with your doctor or community agency to work out what your child needs. Professional and specialized mental health help is best.
Raising a happy child comes down to a combination of factors. Good sleep is just one of them.
Looking for a little extra help promoting good sleep habits? These mom-approved favorites can help.
A version of this story was published October 17, 2021. It has been updated.