Most kids seem to bounce with energy, most of the time. So, when your child is lethargic
complains of feeling tired, what might be the problem and what should you do?
writes Lucy Jolin
There can be several straightforward reasons why a child is tired and lethargic,
and they tend to revolve around eating and sleeping patterns. Just like adults, kids
who don’t get the right balance may struggle to keep up their energy levels through
Eating for energy
If children aren’t getting food when they need it, their blood sugar levels can drop,
making them tired and irritable. This is one good reason why kids may appear lacking
in energy. ‘Babies need to be fed on demand, but once you start weaning, you need
to get into a regular pattern of feeding them throughout the day,’ says Judy More,
paediatric dietitian and nutritionist specialising in children’s
nutrition, and consultant to the the Infant and Toddler Forum
(infantandtoddlerforum.org) which promotes best practice.
Toddlers have small stomachs, adds Judy More, so they can’t take
in a large amount of food all at once, and can’t go for hours and hours between meals.
She advises three regular meals a day, and two to three snacks such as vegetable
sticks and a carbohydrate-based food like crackers, oatcakes or breadsticks.
When it comes to what our children should be eating to keep them happy and energetic,
it’s simple: a balanced diet. That means the right amount from each food group –
starchy carbohydrates such as bread, pasta and rice; fruit and veg; dairy products;
meat, fish and pulses, and oils and butters.
‘Starchy foods are needed at every meal, with some extra carbs
for a snack if the child has been very active,’ advises Judy More. ‘Fruit and vegetables
are actually the least important group for young children, so just offer them and
don’t pressurise them. Milk is important, but not too much, as it’s very low in iron.
who don’t get enough iron may suffer from iron deficiency anaemia, and it’s usually
because they are drinking too much milk.
‘Meat, fish and pulses are very important for iron and should be
offered three times a day, while a small amount of oil or butter in
food preparation gives the omega-3 fats which are important for brain development,’
adds Judy More.
What about sugar and its effect on energy levels? Judy More says there’s nothing
wrong with sugar in moderation. ‘The government
recommend not more than five per cent of calories should come from sugar, so you
can give a pudding once a day,’ she advises. ‘But if you start adding sweet drinks,
such as fruit juice, smoothies, or fizzy drinks, they push sugar levels up high.
Then they crash, which can bring about tiredness and irritability.’
While the shops are full of supplements promising endless energy, Judy More says
the only one that children need is a vitamin D
supplement. ‘Vitamin D is produced when sun hits our skin, and it’s only present
in very small quantities in certain foods,’ she says. ‘It’s not added to our food,
so many of us don’t have enough of it. It’s essential for our health, which is why
recommend that children take a supplement. But children don’t need any other supplementation.’
Getting the balance right
When Yvonne Covell’s daughter Serena started reception, she was doing tennis and
ballet, and Yvonne also enrolled her into after-school club one day a week.
‘It meant I could have a longer day to work,’ says Yvonne. ‘Having worked part-time
during her playgroup years, I was hoping to extend my hours.’ Serena loved her activities,
but began to show signs of being over-tired after the longer school day. “I stopped
the after-school club after a month because she would come home completely overtired
and be upset and have tantrums all evening – but despite this it was still difficult
to get her to sleep,’ says Yvonne.
‘Other parents said that when their children got tired from after-school club it
just meant they went to sleep earlier – but that wasn’t our experience. This had
a knock-on effect on the rest of the week, too,’ she adds. Now Serena is six, and
gets less tired, but Yvonne is still careful about her daily commitments. ‘I have
to be quite firm about saying no to other parents who want lots of playdates. It’s
so important to get the balance right and that means a good dose of chilling-out
home time in the mix.’
A good night’s sleep
As a guideline, under-threes need about 12 hours of sleep a night, and four to six-year-olds
should be getting around 10 ½ to 11 ½ hours. ‘However, there are always going to
be some children who need more and some who need less,’ points out Lisa Artis, sleep
advisor at The Sleep Council. ‘You can work this out just by seeing how the child
is the next day – like adults, if they’re grumpy and irritable and emotional, they’re
not getting enough.’
Making sure children get enough sleep is about more than just getting them upstairs
at a certain time. Lisa Artis advises a gentle bedtime routine to ensure that your
child is relaxed and ready to sleep once they’re snuggled up. ‘Think about what you’re
doing for that hour before bed: helping them chill out or running around and
wrestling with them? A good routine is teatime, quiet play such as colouring or jigsaw
puzzles, bath, story and bed – and sticking to that same routine night after night.
They need to be in a relaxed state of mind.’
As long as your child is getting the right amount of sleep, it doesn’t
necessarily matter what time that occurs. But if you’re planning to
change that routine, be prepared for tiredness. ‘If bed at 6pm and getting up at
6am works for you, that’s fine,’ says Lisa Artis. ‘But we all thrive on routine,
and children are usually programmed to get up at the same time, no matter what time
they went to bed. We’ve all put them to bed later hoping they’ll sleep later, but
sadly it doesn’t always work that way!’
We all want to give our kids the chance to participate in all the different opportunities
that are available to them – it’s great to see them make friends, and find out what
they’re good at and what they enjoy. But if children seem constantly tired, it might
be a good idea to encourage them to hang out at home some of the time, at least until
their energy levels are back to normal.
‘I am concerned about the impact of over-scheduling in children’s lives,’ says Liat
Hughes-Joshi, author of Five Minute Parenting Fixes and How To Unplug Your Child
(Summersdale). ‘If children are tired, then it can impact on their learning at school,
‘Allowing children periods of unstructured time to mess around and be bored makes
them happier and healthier. It allows them to play
imaginatively and creatively, and that’s priceless for their development,’ she adds.
‘Having nothing to do means they are more likely to daydream and reflect on what’s
going on in their lives. This can be an important way of dealing with stresses and
problems. Having lots of playdates is an important part of growing up – but we have
the balance right or everyone ends up tired and miserable. All too often, I see parents
who seem to think they have to tick boxes of things their children have done in a
day. But they forget the huge benefits of children learning to entertain themselves
independently,’ concludes Liat Hughes-Joshi.
Could it be something serious?
Most of the time, when children are tired because they are unwell, it’s nothing serious
and it will pass. But if you feel that something else might be going on, do get them
checked out. Extreme tiredness is one of the three main symptoms of type 1 diabetes
(the other two are being thirsty all the time, and needing to wee frequently).
Low energy could also point to iron deficiency anaemia, which is caused by a lack
of iron in a child’s bloodstream. And feeling tired all the time could also be a
symptom of cancer in children.
If you’re at all concerned about how tired your child is, see your GP.