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10 tips to help kids sleep and avoid those tech nightmares

Getting children settled down can be challenging and using technology before bed can add to the problem. Lisa Salmon seeks expert advice

Children's tech obsession can be hard enough for parents to deal with during the day - but new evidence suggests they should be concerned about the effect it's having on kids at night too.

Research shows that the 40% of children aged between six and 11 years who use mobile phones, laptops or tablets in the hours before bedtime are getting around 20 minutes less sleep a night than kids who don't use tech in the run-up to bedtime. And that means children who use tech before bedtime every night could end up with a sleep debt of around 121 hours a year.

The research, led by cognitive developmental psychologist Dr Anna Weighall from the University of Sheffield, in conjunction with the University of Leeds and Silentnight, questioned 1,000 parents, and also found that on average, children slept 60 minutes less if technology devices were in the room, compared to those who slept in a tech-free zone. Parents reported an impact on sleep even if technology in the bedroom was switched off.

"Technology can benefit our lives in so many ways," says Weighall, "but parents need to be aware of the negative impact it can have on children when it comes to sleep.

"The presence of tablets and phones in a child's bedroom, even if they're switched off, can leave them feeling unsettled which will have an effect on their sleeping patterns.

"A 20-minute sleep debt may not seem a lot, but if you look at it over a year, or even throughout their childhood years, you begin to see the significant impact of a tech-filled bedtime routine.

Having clear rules about the use of technology close to bedtime is a small change that has the potential to make a really big difference to our children's daily lives."

When light levels drop in the evening, our circadian timer switches on and stimulates the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, but the use of tech before bed disrupts this natural process, explains Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, Silentnight's sleep expert.

Ramlakhan says screens on phones and tablets emit blue light which suppresses the production of melatonin and stimulates the chemical dopamine, which makes us feel alert.

"By establishing a regular sleep routine, without mobiles or tablets, children will sleep better, perform better at school, and be happier and healthier as a result," she stresses.

"Concentration and the ability to learn can be severely affected by lack of sleep, so I urge children and parents to put down technology at least 90 minutes before bedtime."

The research also showed one in 10 parents feel unable to ensure their child gets the sleep they need.

However, child sleep specialist Andrea Grace has these tips to help school-age children get a good night's sleep:

1. Screens off

Turn all screens off at least half an hour before bath time and don't have TVs or computers in the bedroom.

2. Routine is vital

A consistent bedtime routine will help your child feel safe, and ready to sleep, although Grace warns that parents with more than one child will need to be organised.

3. Early homework

Try to get homework done well before bedtime. It's nice to have quiet time together before bed, chatting or reading.

4. No stimulants

Avoid fizzy drinks, chocolate or other foods containing stimulants. Encourage your child to have a nourishing evening meal which is rich in carbohydrate and protein.

5. Bath then bed

Having a bath will only promote sleep if it's immediately before bed, otherwise it may give children a second wind.

So after your child's bath or shower they should go directly to their bedroom rather than coming back into the living room.

6. Give them a comfy bed

Make sure your child's bed and mattress are comfortable, and they have the right amount of bedding for the room temperature.

7. Attention please!

During the preparation for bed, give your child or children your fullest possible attention, and try not to take telephone calls. "As well as feeling safe, children need to feel loved in order to sleep well," explains Grace. "So show your child how important they are by giving your time, even if that time is being shared with siblings."

8. Don't use bedrooms as punishment

Children need to have happy associations with the room in which they sleep if they're going to really relax and sleep well.

9. Give reassurance for sleep problems

School-age children can demonstrate a wide range of sleep difficulties, including settling problems, delayed sleep onset, waking during the night and nightmares. Grace says that with most simple settling and waking problems, parents should work with their child to reassure them and also to help them to go off to sleep happily and alone at the beginning of the night.

"It's quite normal to wake several times during the night and if you're with your child when they first go off to sleep, then they'll need to get you back to act as a sleep prompt at later wakings," she says.

10. Don't let them get in your bed

If your child is accustomed to getting into your bed during the night, they'll wake in anticipation of this move, warns Grace. "Knowing they're going to be moving during the night actually prevents many children from being able to sleep really well," she adds.

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