Australia: Sleep and the restless preschooler: why policies need to change

Not all young children want – or are able – to sleep at the same time.

The legislated regulatory standards for sleep, rest and relaxation in early childhood education and care have changed this week. What are the changes and why have these been made?

From October 1, the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Carerequires that each long day care, family day care and preschool service has a policy and procedure for sleep, rest and relaxation. These must document how services will provide for each child’s comfort and wellbeing, and how they must align with children’s individual needs.

The changes reflect that sleep-rest practices in early childhood education settings are an area of concern. Currently, the majority of services provide for sleep and rest through a standard period in the middle of the day when children are required to lie down, whether or not they are tired or able to sleep. Such practices fail to consider children’s individual developmental needs and their right to choose.

Our extensive studies of sleep practices in Queensland have found that many services do not provide alternatives for non-sleeping children or for children who are tired outside the scheduled sleep-rest time. Observing 2,300 preschool children in 130 centres, we found that only 30% slept during sleep-rest times, yet 80% of centres mandated a period of time where no alternative activity was permitted.

The longest mandated sleep-rest time was a significant 2.5 hours. In toddler rooms, where there is huge variability in sleep need, we observed 100% of services providing a two-hour standard sleep time. In baby rooms, where children have the widest differences in sleep needs (one to five naps a day), we found most services were trying to establish a single standard sleep time. So why is this happening?

The expectation that all children nap in the middle of the day is matched by the expectation that educators have “free” time then to undertake cleaning, record-keeping and educational planning, and also to take their rest breaks.

The reality is quite different. There are always children who cannot sleep either because the timing of the sleep period is wrong for their body clocks or because they have simply grown out of naps. Not all children are tired at the same time. A child waking at 5.30am may be more ready for a midday nap than one who woke at 7.30am, yet if they are in the same centre, they will be put down for a nap at the same time. The result is often stress rather than rest.

Educators encourage children to sleep – by patting and calming – all the while aware of expectations to complete other tasks such as cleaning and paperwork. In some services tensions are high, as non-sleeping children disrupt those needing sleep. We see children becoming stressed and distressed, and educators too. As educators’ duties pile up, the incidence of reactive behavioural management escalates.

Parents are also unhappy. Sleep routines are a salient factor in their childcare and early education choices as parents seek to maintain their child’s sleep patterns and support their own sleep needs, with its effect on family functioning and work life.

Our study of 750 parents of preschool children found that 79% no longer wanted their child to sleep while in their education and care service. Parent cited disruption to the child’s night sleep and their wellbeing as the key reason. Conflict between parents and educators can result.

Parents sometimes make requests that do not comply with health and safety regulations or conflict with an educator’s reading of a child’s sleep cues. Educators have a remit to work with parents, but sometime feel pressure to follow parent requests despite their professional responsibility to advocate for the child. In all this, the child’s rights can get lost.

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