Does your child get enough sleep? If you are like many parents who come to my child psychology clinic, Everlief, you are thinking “probably not”.
In this article I explore why you should track your child’s sleep, and you can download my free children’s sleep tracker template.
The printable template is equally applicable whether your child is six or sixteen. In fact, parents can use it for their personal use too!
Background: Sleep and the Mental Health Epidemic
I have a motive for writing this article. I am on a mission to raise understanding about the importance of sleep to mental health and happiness. It is a special interest of mine.
Many, even most of the young people I work with have sleep difficulties. It’s fair to say there’s an epidemic of sleep problems.
This is caused by many things including:
- less outdoor time,
- more screen time,
- higher levels of mental health problems – including anxiety.
It’s no accident that there’s also a mental health epidemic amongst young people, though there are multiple and complex causes for that.
Why is Sleep Important?
Good sleep is vital for:
- Balanced mood.
- Learning and concentrating.
- Positive mental health.
Let’s go deeper and take a look at each one in turn.
How Does Sleep Affect Mood?
A recent article by the Australian government about sleep nicely sums up nicely the research on the effects of less than optimum sleep. It concluded that sleep deprivation affects children in different ways to adults.
For one thing, sleepy children tend to ‘speed up’ rather than slow down.
Other mood-based symptoms of not enough sleep include:
- General moodiness and irritability
- Anger outbursts
- The tendency to emotionally ‘explode’ at the slightest thing
- Over-activity and hyperactive behaviour
- Daytime naps
- Grogginess when they wake up in the morning
- Finding it hard to get out of bed in the morning.
If you recognise any of these in your child if you’re a parent, working on sleep could make all the difference.
How Does Sleep Affect Learning and Concentration?
Many studies have shown that reduced sleep – even just half an hour to an hour less than they need – leads to reduced alertness in children.
In one study children with fragmented sleep gave a lower performance on a variety of cognitive measures. It was especially pronounced in more complex tasks, such as a continuous performance test and a symbol-digit substitution test. These children also had higher rates of behaviour problems.
In a 2008 study of more than 3000 teenagers in the USA, students who described themselves as struggling or failing school (C’s, D’s/F’s) reported that on school nights they get about 25 min less sleep.
These children also went to bed an average of 40 min later than A and B students.
Also, students with worse grades reported greater weekend delays in their sleep schedule than did those with better grades.
How Does Sleep Affect Mental Health?
Many studies show that poor mental health is linked with poor sleep. There is a complex interaction between the two. However, improving sleep improves mental health.
In one study by researchers at Columbia University, teens who went to bed at 10 p.m. or earlier were less likely to suffer from depression or suicidal thoughts than those who regularly stayed awake well after midnight.
In a 2020 UK study at Reading University on nearly 5000 teens, poor sleep was significantly linked with teenage depression.
The researchers suggested that teenagers who experience very poor sleep may be more likely to experience poor mental health in later life.
In the study, young people who had experienced depression and anxiety had overwhelmingly experienced poor sleep during their teens.
One of the researchers in the Reading study concluded that:
“The overall picture highlights that we need to take sleep much more into account when considering support for teenager wellbeing… The relationship between sleep and mental health for teenagers is a two way street. While poorer sleep habits are associated with worse mental health, we are also seeing how addressing sleep for young people with depression and anxiety can have a big impact on their wellbeing.”
Another member of the research team said:
“This longitudinal study confirms what we see in our clinics — that poor sleep during adolescence can be a ‘fork in the road’, where a teen’s mental health can deteriorate if it’s not treated.
Anxiety is also linked with poor sleep.
The study above found this link and it was also found in a 2015 systematic review of the evidence.
The researchers concluded that: “Sleep problems are common and prospectively predict escalating anxiety symptoms.” In other words, poor sleep tends to lead to escalating anxiety.
A study published in a journal called the Journal of Youth and Adolescence found that the disruption of the natural sleep cycle can also significantly increase the risk of substance use, by interfering with brain functions that regulate the experience of reward, emotions, and impulsivity.
More Sleep Studies and Their Astounding Results
In a 2009 study of 384 US students aged 13-17, a huge 91% of students got inadequate sleep (classed as less than 9 hours) on most school nights of the week.
Ten percent 10% reported less than 6 hours of sleep each week night.
The majority indicated that not getting enough sleep caused them to be more tired during the day, have difficulty paying attention, get lower grades, have higher stress AND have difficulty getting along with others.
Sleep Diary Template: Why Track Your Child’s Sleep?
Sleep is the cornerstone of thriving in mental health, happiness and academic achievement. It’s an essential part of a healthy lifestyle.
Get sleep in order and you are giving your child a great foundation.
Tracking your child’s sleep for 2 or more weeks will help you understanding what you are dealing with.
Is your child getting enough sleep?
You will be able to measure how sleep-deficient your child is – if at all – and make a plan.
In addition to tracking the number of hours your child gets, you can also estimate the quality of their sleep using the sleep diary template. This is not an exact science but certain questions can be very revealing.
In the morning did your child wake up feeling refreshed and energised?
Types of Sleep Trackers For Kids
There are so many ways of tracking sleep including:
- A sleep tracker app like Sleep Cycle
- Use of an Apple Watch.
- Bullet journal trackers such as the beautiful examples in this video by Archer & Olive:
The best ways to track a child’s sleep will vary between families. However, in a school-aged child a great way to ensure success is to get your child on board.
My free printable sleep tracker is a perfect way to work together. The sleep tracker is a digital download in printable pdf format and you can download it for free below.
Kids’ Sleep Trackers: Simplicity is Key
In general I find that tracking kids’ sleep is best kept as simple as possible.
If you want your child to have a good night’s sleep consistently, get them on board. They’ll need to understand the importance of sleep for good health (mental and physical).
Then, team up with your child to choose the simplest way of tracking their sleep habits.
Remember that the quality of your child’s sleep is just as import to rate as measuring the quantity. As well as actual sleep, you may wish to analyse your child’s sleep routine – what they do before bed.
Keep your sleep journal or log for at least 2 weeks.
If you decide to use my free printable sleep tracker templates, I explain how to use them below.
Sleep Diary Template: Download Here
How to Use the Child Sleep Diary Template
Use it alongside our article called Sleep Problems In Teenagers And Pre-Teens.
This tracker will help you to see whether over time your child is getting enough hours of sleep. You will also be able to determine whether they have consistent sleep patterns.
You can record what time your child feel asleep and woke up.
Of course, older children will be able to complete the sleep tracker themselves.
Vitally, the sleep tracker enables you to record whether your child woke up feeling refreshed. If they didn’t you know there is a problem either with amount of sleep, quality of sleep, or both.
Sleep Log Template: What To Do With Your Sleep Data
With any sleep diary or tracker, you need at least 2 weeks worth of data before you can draw any useful conclusions.
So stick with it!
It will be worth it for your child’s improved quality of life in the long run. You will start to see patterns.
For example, on certain days of the week, your child may get to sleep much earlier than others.
From here, you can identify your priorities. Then you can set some sleep goals with your child. Then identify simple things you can change, one by one. Keep it simple at all times.
Your sleep goals might include:
- Better sleep
- Higher energy levels
- Longer total sleep time
- Later wake times
Sleep Diary For Kids: Set Goals for Better Sleep
Above all else, you must make your goal specific and measurable. Let’s take one of the goals above and tweak it, so you can see how it works.
We’ll look at better sleep.
First of all, let’s define better sleep. This might look different for every child.
Let’s say better sleep for this particular child is going to be defined as “sleeping through all night from 9pm to 7am.”
Now this goal has become measurable.
You will need to keep a note of sleep times, wake times, total sleep, number of times your child woke up, and for how long. By recording these things, you’ll be able to see if they start to improve over a period of time.
For example, if your child is waking twice every night, perhaps after two weeks you may notice that on average they are only waking once, so things are going in the right direction.
Sleep Tracker Printable: Choose a Strategy and Apply It
Once you have identified your goal, you should work on just one strategy towards your goal. You can add another strategy once the first is established.
Let’s take another example.
For a teen who is getting to sleep after midnight every night and isn’t getting enough sleep, the data from your sleep tracker printable will reveal clues about why they are staying up so late.
Discussion with your child will also be revealing. If you can see that screen time, caffeine consumption and leaving homework til late at night are all contributing, don’t try to change all three things at once.
Choose one area, such as caffeine consumption, and apply a plan.
For instance, you may agree that your teen won’t drink their usual coffee or cola after 2pm, and will switch to a decaffeinated drink instead.
Don’t give up. Try this strategy for at least 2 weeks before reviewing your results! Be sure to work with your child. Be careful not to impose strategies on them, as this will be a recipe for failure.
Sleep Journal Template: Case Study (Ellen)
Ellen is an eleven year-old girl who seems to exhausted all the time.
At bedtimes she is “wired” and can’t seem to relax. It has been many months since she has had a night of proper sleep.
Even when she finally drifts off, Ellen believes she sleeps lightly and she wakes up several times each night.
This is a sign that Ellen’s sleep cycles may be incomplete. We sleep in cycles of light sleep, deep sleep and REM – rapid eye movement – sleep. Ellen may not be getting enough deep and REM sleep.
Ellen has so little sleep during the week that she has begun to sleep hours into the day at weekends. Sometimes she doesn’t get up until 11.30am.
Sleep Tracker PDF Data Analysis (Ellen)
Ellen and her mum Jenna decide that enough is enough. Ellen clearly has a sleep problem which is affecting her health.
Ellen is permanently on edge, her grades are slipping at school, and her mood is very low.
Ellen’s immune system has also been affected by her lack of sleep. She catches every bug and virus going round.
They decide to find a sleep log template to track Ellen’s sleeping patterns. Ellen uses different colors to record her hours of sleep, quality of sleep and bedtime routines. This simple thing helped Ellen feel more in control and empowered to make some changes.
After 2 weeks Jenna and Ellen analysed Ellen’s sleep behavior. They realised two things:
Sleeping so late at weekends means that Ellen can’t get to sleep until 1am in Sunday evenings, so she is exhausted before the school week has even begun.
Ellen uses an iPad to try to wind down in the evenings. Even though she isn’t on social media or gaming, the YouTube videos she is watching about Minecraft strategy are very exciting and this contributes to her feeling “wired”. On top of this, the blue light is fooling her brain into thinking it is daytime.
Ellen’s brain isn’t getting clear cues that it is time to get ready for sleep and produce the sleep hormone, melatonin.
Planning and Next Steps Using the Sleep Log Template (Ellen)
Ellen and Jenna decide that her sleep routine needs to change.
Instead of watching the iPad for hours until she falls asleep, they decide Jenna will remove it at 9pm. Ellen will then listen to an audiobook. She will choose a book that is relaxing.
This way, Ellen’s brain will be getting more consistent cues to produce the sleep chemicals she needs. It won’t be getting blue light which simulates daylight, and she will be able to close her eyes while she listens.
They will try this strategy for a few weeks. They will use the sleep log template to measure progress.
After this they will gradually aim to cut back Ellen’s weekend lie-ins so she is more likely to get to sleep at her normal bedtime on Sundays.
Through use of the sleep diary template the family have gained control of the situation and made a positive plan to get Ellen regular, good quality sleep.
Sleep Diary Template: Summary
Keeping track of your child’s sleep habits can be life-changing. Doing this for your child can lead to changes which will positively impact their mood, learning and mental health.
For more expert sleep tips, take a look at my articles below.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.
In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.