The Importance of Sleep

The Importance of Sleep

Dear Dr. Mary and Lynn: 

I am a child care provider who recently heard you speak about the importance of sleep.  Presently we are waking our preschoolers after one hour of nap at parents’ requests.  Should we be doing this?  - Chelsea

Dear Chelsea:

We are so glad you wrote.  This is a very frequent question.  The parents’ concern of course is the fear that if the children nap longer they won’t fall asleep until late at night, which is a problem for everyone.  It is possible however to allow a full nap and still have an early bedtime. 

Preschoolers need on average 12 hours of sleep, so our recommendation is that you begin naptime at 12:30 PM that will allow them then to complete a full sleep cycle which is about 1.5 to 2 hours in length.  They’ll be awake at the latest by 3:30, alert and happy rather than groggy and cranky as we suspect they may be when woken after an hour which is in the middle of a sleep cycle.   Then help parents to identify their child’s “window” for nighttime sleep.  If the children awaken at 6:00 AM and nap for 1.5 hours, they still need 10.5 hours at night, which leads us to a sleep time of 7:30 PM. The bedtime routine would then begin by 7:00 PM so that they would be completely ready for sleep at 7:30. 

It’s easy to assume that if children have napped they won’t need to go to sleep until 8:00 or later and with busy schedules that’s what often ends up happening.  But by 8:00 their window for sleep has been missed and it is much more difficult for them to fall asleep.  Leading parents to assume the nap is causing the problem when the real culprit is a bedtime that is too late. 

It is really important to protect children’s sleep.  Research demonstrates that adequate sleep leads to:

  • Higher grade point averages
  • Better mathematical skills
  • Higher reading scores
  • Improved focus and attention
  • Less conflict
  • Fewer accidents
  • Stronger immune systems and thus less illness
  • Fewer cavities and gum disease
  • Lower susceptibility to obesity

So we highly recommend letting them nap for a full sleep cycle.  Help the parents in your program understand how much sleep preschoolers really need and how important it is to maximize their growth and development.  Sleep is just as vital for our well-being as food.  We would never withhold food, let’s not withhold sleep. 

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