When children sleep well at night, they can more easily fight off illnesses and are healthier overall. However, helping your child get a good night’s sleep is more than sending them to bed at a specific time — although that does help.
A parent should also pay attention to whether the child falls asleep easily, stays asleep through the night, and feels refreshed in the morning, explains Dr. Saad Saad, a noted pediatric surgeon who is now retired.
Preschoolers should sleep 11-13 hours each night and most do not nap after age five. Many have difficulty falling asleep and often wake up during the night.
Children between 6-13 need 9-11 hours of sleep. However, at this age they have greater demands on their time from school, homework, sports and other activities.
School-age children are interested in TV, computers, and devices, plus they eat/drink caffeinated products. There’s no wonder they have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. Studies show that watching TV close to bedtime results in kids who resist bedtime, don’t fall asleep easily, and sleep fewer hours.
Sleep deprivation affects their mood and ability to concentrate. When they get too little sleep, children are irritable, depressed, and may have ADHD symptoms. They are sleepy at school, restless, and can’t concentrate.
Dr. Saad advises parents to take this issue of sleep deprivation seriously. Children need good-quality, sufficient sleep every night in order for their bodies and minds to develop properly, he says.
How can you help your child get the sleep they need to stay health?
Dr. Saad Saad advises lifestyle changes to help school-age children get the sleep they need:
- Avoid caffeine in all its forms — chocolate, soda, tea, and snack foods, especially in late afternoon and evenings.
- Get the kids to bed at a regular time.
- Make child’s bedroom conducive to sleep – dark, cool and quiet.
- Keep TV and computers out of the bedroom; limit screen time in the evening.
Dr. Saad advises that certain foods can help children (and adults) with sleep. Also, two supplements — melatonin and magnesium — are safe for children and have been shown to promote good sleep.
Foods to help children sleep
Adding a few specific foods at dinner or mid-evening snacks can help improve your child’s sleep. These include:
Bananas: They contain magnesium, a natural muscle relaxant that has been proven effective in promoting sleep. Bananas also contain melatonin and serotonin, two natural compounds that help with sleep.
Dairy: Milk and other dairy products are packed with tryptophan, the amino acid that makes us sleepy after a big Thanksgiving dinner.
Turkey and chicken: These meats, like dairy, are full of tryptophan and will help your child fall asleep.
Beans: Black beans, kidney beans — they are high in tryptophan. These plant-based gems have added benefits of fiber, protein, and other nutrients.
Whole grains: Whole grain crackers, pasta, cereals and other foods produce insulin which helps promote sleep.
Rice: Rice is high on the glycemic index. This means a serving of rice at dinner will give your child an immediate energy boost, then a hard crash at bedtime. Perfect!
Spinach: Leafy green veggies like spinach and cabbage are high in tryptophan, too. They have many more health benefits as well, as they are vitamin-rich and high in fiber.
Salmon: Salmon and other seafoods help the body produce melatonin and serotonin, which help promote sleep. Salmon is also excellent for heart health – excellent!
Lean beef: Beef is also high in tryptophan, so it’s great for promoting sleep. Beef also fuels energy, though, so make sure the meat is eaten early in the evening – not as a snack at bedtime.
Vitamin supplements for sleep
While melatonin is well-known for its effect in regulating sleep patterns, there has been controversy about whether it is safe for children. Another supplement, magnesium, also helps promote sleep and even improves ADHD symptoms — but is less well-known. Dr. Saad Saad provides his insights on both of these supplements.
Magnesium for sleep
Few dietary elements have more influence over the body than magnesium, explains Dr. Saad Saad. Magnesium is one of the 24 essential vitamins and minerals — and low magnesium levels can affect many body functions.
Research shows that children with ADHD often have low magnesium levels, compared to other children. Low magnesium has been liked with inattention, impulsivity and hyperactive behavior.
On the other hand, healthy magnesium levels help with stress, stabilize mood, promote better sleep, and even improve heart and bone health. Low magnesium causes restless sleep, waking frequently, and affects the body’s ability to relax.
Magnesium for children
Magnesium is found in several foods: Dark leafy greens, seeds, nuts (cashews and almonds). Broccoli and squash have magnesium. Beans, dairy products, and meat also contain magnesium.
Studies have shown that magnesium supplements may reduce hyperactivity and improve cognitive function in children with ADHD.
What dose should you give your child? Children age 4-8 can safely take 130mg; from 9-13 can take 240mg; 14-18 – boys can take 410mg; girls take 360mg.
Melatonin for sleep
Among adults, melatonin supplements are a very popular sleep aid. The question is — should children be taking melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone that the body produces naturally. The pineal gland in the brain produces and releases melatonin to control the body’s circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle in which a person’s brain switches between states of alertness and drowsiness. The circadian rhythm is important in determining both sleeping and eating patterns in humans.
If a child does not produce enough melatonin, they may develop insomnia — difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep throughout the night, explains Dr. Saad Saad.
Research suggests that melatonin may help children fall asleep faster. There is also evidence that melatonin may improve the quality of a child’s sleep.
A 2017 study found that 3mg tablets of fast-release melatonin was significantly more effective at reducing the time it took for children to fall asleep compared to the placebo.
A 2013 paper reviewed five studies that investigated drug treatments for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Researchers reported that melatonin seemed to have positive effects on treating insomnia symptoms in children with ADHD.
Dr. Saad Saad advises that parents talk to your doctor or pediatrician before giving melatonin to a child. Your healthcare professional will be able to advise whether the child with sleeping problems is likely to benefit from melatonin and other treatment options.
Your doctor can also advise on the safest dosage of melatonin that will be most effective for the child. Typically, a doctor will suggest a very low dose to start and adjusting as necessary. It’s best to give the child a melatonin supplement 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.
About Dr. Saad Saad
Dr. Saad Saad, now retired, served as Surgeon-in-Chief and the Co-Medical Director of K Hovnanian Children Hospital at Hackensack Meridian Health Care System in New Jersey for most of his career.
Saad Saad was one of eight children born in Palestine, raised in Kuwait — now a family of three surgeons, two PhD and two Master Degrees in engineering and a teacher. Saad Saad graduated from medical School at Cairo University in Egypt 47 years ago, earning his medical degree with honors and ranked second in his class.
Dr. Saad immigrated to the U.S. 45 years ago, having completed his internship in England. He did his residency in surgery and in pediatric surgery in the U.S., and is Board Certified in Pediatric Surgery. Saad has been married for 42 years and has four children – two Surgeons, one Lawyer and an ICU Nurse.
He is a pediatric surgeon who served the Saudi Royal family in the 1980s. Over his 40-year-career, Dr. Saad performed complex pediatric surgeries on patients both inside and outside of his community. He holds the patents for both of his medical inventions, the newly designed catheter and the suction endoscope.