Why is my child always tired?

Many kids complain of a lack of energy and feeling tired and listless. But do you know the reasons why? If your child is not unwell it’s likely to be due to a lack of sleep, but the food we eat is also a major contributor.

Read below to understand some of the underlying, common reasons that contribute to sleep issues.

How much sleep should my child get?

Newborns sleep 16 to 20 hours each day. Between the ages of 1 and 4, sleep time decreases to about 11 or 12 hours. Young children need at least 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night. On average, adolescents will need about nine hours of sleep to function at their best.

If a child doesn’t get enough sleep, they will be tired.

Children need at least 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night; if they are getting less, it catches up with them.

If your child is experiencing regular sleepless nights or not getting adequate hours of sleep, this will create a sleep deficit over time and impact functioning in a variety of areas. A lack of sleep can cause fatigue, irritability and affect memory and concentration.

What happens during the night?

During the night human growth hormone triggers proteins in the body to build new cells and repair any damage. It is only released when we sleep, so adequate daily (or nightly) rest is imperative to grow and maintain a healthy body.

What affects our sleep patterns and makes us feel tired?

  • inadequate nutrition – we need a regular intake of energy-boosting foods
  • lack of routine, especially at bedtime
  • stress and all stimulants such as cola drinks, chocolate and screen time
  • eating heavy meals late
  • not getting regular exercise or leading a sedentary lifestyle

Less common reasons for sleep issues, which should be addressed with your doctor or paediatrician can be:

  • side effects of medications
  • waking up frequently during the night as a light sleeper or due to a sleep disorder                                                                                                               
  • sleep apnoea or pauses in breathing that happen during sleep. The most common cause is enlarged tonsils or adenoids 
  • infections, such as Epstein-Barr virus
  • chronic illnesses, such as asthma, anaemia and hypothyroidism                                                                                                                                                                       
  • heart problems (very rare in children)                                                                                                                                                                   
  • cancer or other serious diseases (very rare in children)  
  • depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems                                                                         

Restoring sleep is strongly associated with a better physical, mental, and psychological well being.

Tips for parents to promote sleep.

  • Ensure your child has a healthy, nutrient dense diet each day including a good balance of fruits, vegetables, proteins, and complex carbohydrates for energy and wellbeing. Usually three complex main meals complimented with nutritious ‘in-between meal’ snacks and plenty of natural fluids like water will sustain children’s energy needs, ensure they thrive and assist with adequate sleep requirements.
  • Avoid processed foods, and food components like sugar and caffeine which contribute to tiredness and affect sleep patterns.
  • Children don’t need caffeine however if they do have it in a food or beverage, it should be before noon as caffeine can stay in your body for about 8 hours and can have a major impact on sleep.
  • The body needs sugar for energy however eating too much refined sugar can cause weight gain, chronic disease and sugar crashes. Excess weight can make it harder to exercise and sleep resulting in feeling tired. Limit juices, sweets/lollies and other high sugar/low nutrition foods.        

Strategies for children and teens.

  • Routine or structured parts of a child’s day, especially bedtime, are essential for babies and toddlers establishing a positive, calm and consistent ‘bedtime’ routine is essential. In a nutshell: ‘dinner-bath-teeth-story-calm chat-toilet-soothing music-lights out’ enables your child to ease into a positive sleep routine. Limiting screen time and stimulating activities is essential.
  • Avoid arguing with tweens and teens about bedtime. Instead, discuss the issue with them, brainstorm and try to elicit from them ways to help them get the recommended nine hours of sleep.
  • Increased physical activity during the day – all forms of physical activity will help improve the quality of sleep. This is essential for toddlers and young children too. Make it fun! Take a walk to a park, play catch, go on a bike ride, swim, join a sports team, play frisbee, golf, go bowling, dance, take the dog for a walk, try yoga (particularly good for relaxation too) and make it a family goal to be active together to model healthy habits. Remember to limit strenuous exercise in the evening. 
  • Decide together on appropriate time limits for any stimulating activity such as homework, exercise, social media use, loud music or screen time. As little as 12 minutes of screen time can be stimulating for a teenager’s brain. Try to cut out these activities an hour before bedtime.                                                                               
  • Encourage earlier bedtimes on school nights to minimise drowsiness during the school week.        
  • Keep the bedroom dark at night: turn off computers, modems and phones! The brain’s sleep-wake cycle is largely set by light received through the eyes. In the morning, expose your child to lots of light by opening the blinds/curtains to help wake up the brain.             

It will take about four weeks for a new routine to become embedded and six weeks for the benefits of good sleep to shine through and it will be worth the effort!                                                                                                                                     

Get your child back on track with an energetic and productive lifestyle with the tips above as most of the time the reason for feeling tired is nothing serious and very treatable. If you are concerned, book an appointment with your GP or Paediatrician and get your child feeling well.

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