Screens are so much a part of our daily lives that it’s hard to imagine a world without them. They have become a necessity in our increasingly connected society. And yet there is a realisation that we’re spending too much time looking at screens. In fact, most of us look at screens all day long.
It is now widely accepted that too much screen time can be detrimental to our health and can cause on-going sleep problems. This applies equally to children as it does to adults. It has been found that even the very presence of a screen in a child’s bedroom can result in poor sleep quality. This is because tablets and smartphones are addictive devices – they are incredibly difficult to resist. So, if a child knows a screen is just sitting there in their room, even if it is switched off, it will serve as a major distraction. But the use of screens in the evening will also interfere with the natural process of falling asleep.
How to manage screen time with young children
As a paediatric sleep consultant I’m acutely aware of the impact that screens have on sleep and especially on children’s sleep. Smartphones and tablets are a facility that our own parents didn’t have when they were raising us. Yet they managed perfectly well with the simple routines surrounding bedtime. There might have been some afternoon TV but that was it.
Somehow today screens have become “fillers” for all sorts of situations in a child’s day. How many of us have whipped out our mobile phone during a nappy change so that our struggling and crying baby or toddler can be distracted and calmed down with a happy song or cartoon? And what about that doctor’s appointment when you need your child to keep quiet. How tempting is it to take out that mobile phone and find a game or YouTube video that they enjoy whilst you concentrate on your appointment. I suspect most parents, myself included, have succumbed to using a device to help them in many difficult situations. There is no shame in that. But what about allowing your child to fall asleep with a device in their hands?
As a parent, you have to manage screen time in such a way that you protect your baby or toddler from the harmful effects of getting too much. On the other hand, screens can be a lifeline to parents providing moments of peace at crucial times of the day and why shouldn’t you benefit from technology to save your sanity?
The main areas of concern
As a sleep expert my focus is on how screens can impact negatively at bedtime and more importantly, how they can impact negatively on a baby or child’s sleep.
- Research has shown that screens emit blue light which can disrupt the falling asleep process. This is because they prevent the body from releasing melatonin – known as the “sleep hormone” which makes the body feel sleepy in the evening.
- Viewing a screen instantly stimulates the brain and makes it far more difficult for the brain to “switch off”, let alone calm down and prepare to fall asleep.
- Evidence suggests that children who are exposed to too much screen time can become irritable and fractious. This can mean hyperactivity and temper tantrums at bedtime which is something you will desperately want to avoid.
- Constant screen watching can lead to reduced attention span and hamper memory. This, in turn, can affect learning and the healthy cognitive development of a child. Long term, this will also impact on their sleep.
- Screen glare can put a strain on young eyes. Even as adults our eyes can get tired from being too long on a computer. So, the effect on a baby or young child can be significant.
- The more children become accustomed to screen devices, the harder it is to remove them without a major confrontation. Which is the last thing you want at bedtime.
Some scientists recommend that children under the age of 2 should not have any screen time whatsoever. However, some see this as quite extreme. Tablets, televisions and smartphones offer entertainment and learning opportunities for children. But parents have to exert some moderation and allow screen time in small doses. More importantly, the content of their viewing should be closely monitored and be age appropriate.
Screen time before bedtime should be avoided
If there is only one thing that you take away from this article, it would be to avoid screen time before bed. I suggest a “clean window” free of any screen for at least 1-2 hours before bed. This allows your child’s brain to unwind from the day’s activities and to enter a more calming, relaxed phase as you prepare for bedtime. There are lots of ways that you can achieve a happy, tranquil and peaceful bedtime atmosphere. See my blog on how to create the perfect bedtime routine.
Sleep is essential for babies and children for their cognitive and neurological development. There are lots of things you can do to encourage good sleep in your baby or toddler. If you are struggling with your child’s sleep problems, Sleep Superstars is just a click away. We look at sleep holistically and ensure that your package is tailored to your child. To find out more view our testimonials.