Can parents help their kids get sufficient sleep? When and how they provide support makes all the difference.

Sleep is increasingly being recognized as an important determinant of health, and an integral component of healthy living for children. Here, author Evelyn Pyper discusses findings of a new study published in BMC Public Health looking at the effect of different types of parental support on child sleep.

Rising rates of childhood overweight and obesity have brought physical activity, healthy eating, and sedentary behaviour to the forefront of public health discussions. Lingering in the background is the essential, yet often overlooked, behaviour: sleep.

Beyond its influence on cognitive and physical development, lack of sleep continues to be implicated in the child obesity epidemic. Inadequate sleep increases the risk of child obesity, both independently and by negatively affecting children’s physical activity levels and hormones associated with obesity.

Lack of sleep continues to be implicated in the child obesity epidemic.

In Canada, children’s sleep duration has been decreasing in recent decades, thus prompting the 2016 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth to ask, “Are Canadian kids too tired to move?” This key report also highlighted the new Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth, which reveal that a healthy 24 hours includes an uninterrupted, consistent 9 to 11 hours of sleep per night for those aged 5–13 years, and 8 to 10 hours per night for those aged 14–17 years.

Our previous research on child physical activity, healthy eating, and screen time presented a framework for classifying parental support behaviours. Parents’ behaviours also play a key role in influencing the sleep patterns of children across a range of ages. For our current study, we explored the contribution of motivational (encouragement) and regulatory (rule enforcement) parental support behaviours for predicting whether or not children meet the aforementioned sleep guidelines.

Data were collected by Public Health Ontario using Computer Assisted Telephone Interviews (CATI) of parents or guardians living in Ontario, Canada. Our analyses included description of the sample by demographic characteristics, parental support behaviours, and child sleep duration; as well as construction of two multivariable logistic regression models to predict whether or not parents reported their child was meeting sleep guidelines – one for weekday sleep and another for sleep on weekends.

We found that as children enter and progress through adolescence, the proportion of children meeting Canadian sleep guidelines decreases, as do the proportion of parents engaging in support behaviours for sleep. Taken together, this suggests that the time period when parents are less engaged, may actually be when their kids most need the support. (Parents of unruly, sleepy teenagers will rightfully contend that this is easier said than done). Nonetheless, given that around 94% of parents reported encouraging their child to go to bed at a specific time, and just over 84% reported enforcing bedtime rules, it is clear that parents are aware and trying.

Our study also revealed that parents who reported encouraging their child to go to bed at a specific time were less likely to have children meeting sleep guidelines on weekdays. While initially surprising, it is not unreasonable to speculate that encouragement may be a parent’s reaction to their child’s already-established poor sleep habits. In other words, this may be a “chicken or the egg” problem, in which parents’ encouragement doesn’t produce poor sleep habits, but rather, children’s’ poor sleep habits prompt parents to encourage them to get to bed.

Unexpectedly, on weekends, none of the parental support behaviors were found to contribute to children meeting sleep guidelines.

Parents who reported enforcing rules about their child’s bedtime were more likely to have their child meeting sleep guidelines on weekdays, which may reflect general parental expectations, bedtime structure, or the proactive nature of rule-setting. Unexpectedly, on weekends, none of the parental support behaviors were found to contribute to children meeting sleep guidelines. That is not to say that parents have no control over their kid’s sleep on weekends, but weekends are often viewed as “wildcard” days with less consistent bed/wake time, and more activities that may impede sleep.

Finally, it is evident that use and presence of screens in the bedroom can negatively affect children’s sleep; however, our study found that neither rules nor encouragement to limit screens in the bedroom had an effect on children getting sufficient sleep. To help make sense of this finding, consider the use of a family living room only a few decades ago, in which “screen time” (often a single television) could be easily measured and controlled by parents. Now consider present day screen time, in its many forms, representing a highly unstructured activity with no clear starting and end point. The smaller and more portable the device, the easier it is to use in the bedroom.

I would argue that now, more than ever, parents face challenges to effectively supporting child healthy behaviours, due to the pervasiveness of electronic media. It will be important for future studies to focus on how parental support behaviours can be made most effective, and what can be modified in the home environment to support children getting a good nights sleep. Children—even more than our cell phones, laptops, and tablets—need to recharge, and parents are instrumental in helping them do so.

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