New guidelines to help young children get enough sleep, reduce screen time exposure

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SINGAPORE – Avoid screen time during meal times and using food as a reward or to soothe. This recommendation for toddlers is among a new set of guidelines rolled out after previous studies found that young children here are not getting enough sleep and have too much screen time.

The guidelines, set by a workgroup led by KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), are aimed at supporting parents to instil better daily habits from birth to improve their children’s health and well-being in the long term. The workgroup included doctors, allied health professionals, academics, educators and researchers.

Singapore’s first set of integrated 24-hour activity guidelines for children under the age of seven outlines advice in four main areas – physical activity; sedentary behavior; sleep; and diet and eating habits.

The report, released in January, noted that early childhood is a critical period for growth and adopting healthy lifestyle behaviors can impact habits later in life.

Dr Benny Loo, chairman of the workgroup, says it had made reference to several local studies in coming up with the guidelines.

A survey of 340 parents with children younger than seven done by KKH from September to October last year reinforced the need for such guidelines, he adds.

The survey had shown a general lack of awareness of existing health guidelines and positive parenting practices, notes Dr Loo, a consultant at KKH’s general paediatrics service and sport and exercise medicine service.

“Time allocated for physical activity, sleep and recreational screen viewing time practices were sub-optimal in Singapore’s young children, with more than half the parents either underestimating or overestimating the actual duration required for adequate physical activity and recreational screen viewing time,” he says .

The set of guidelines was developed by the KKH-led Integrated Platform for Research in Advancing Metabolic Health Outcomes of Women and Children. It is one of the main programs by the SingHealth Duke-NUS Maternal and Child Health Research Institute.

Ms Carol Loi, a parenting and family coach and digital literacy educator, says young children take the lead from their parents. Having a strong relationship with their child and being aware of the importance of role modeling can go a long way in shaping a child’s development, she says.

“Parents can be intentional in using their time,” she adds. For instance, parents can be mindful of how much time they spend on their own devices, and what they eat in front of their kids.

A practical tip she gives for bedtime and screen-time struggles is that children need time to transit from one activity to another.

“Moving from being awake and being asleep and vice versa is about change management. The body needs time to wind down, as well as to be active,” she says.

Likewise, easing children out of a video or game they are highly engaged in takes time, she adds.

“Giving children advance notice may help. Let them know of the activities that they will be doing after they stop using their screens.”

If possible, use a larger tablet rather than a smartphone, so that it would be easier for parents to share a screen with their child and have meaningful conversations about what they are watching, says Ms Loi.

She also encourages parents to have realistic expectations, noting that every family has different needs and may be in different seasons of life.

“Balancing the need to be intentional in nurturing healthy habits in their children as well as the realities of life may not be easy,” she says.

Dr Loo acknowledges that the guidelines may seem daunting for parents at first.

“But once one can make this a way of life over each 24-hour day, it will become easier, more natural and you will reap bountiful benefits, both physically and psycho-emotionally,” he says.

His advice is to start with one or any combination of the recommended behaviors, and adopt the practices together as a family or with friends while encouraging one another.

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