Sleepless Kids in Serious Trouble

Modern medicine prescribes doses of daily sleep for children in increments along the following lines:

Infants 0-12 months – 13-15 hours per day

Children 1-5 years old – 12-15 hours per day

Children 6-12 years old – 10 -12 hours per day

Teenagers – 8 – 9.5 hours per day

For infants and toddlers, some of these sleep hours may be caught during nap times, but a recent article published in the medical journal, Sleep, details research which indicates few children are getting the sleep they deserve for optimum health.

Of particular concern to medical professionals is a recent connection that’s been made between inadequate sleep and childhood obesity. In a study of elementary-school-aged students, there was a 12% incidence of obesity by sixth grade in a group of kids averaging 10-12 hours of sleep per night, but that rate nearly doubled in the group of kids sleeping less than 9 hours per night.

An unrelated experiment by endocrinologist Eve Van Cauter of the University of Chicago indicates that sleep-deprived adults produce more of the hormone gherlin, which promotes feelings of hunger and less of the hormone leptin, which signals when the stomach is full. In other words, lack of sleep leads to eating more.

None of the above research is considered completely conclusive, and doctors remind us that the rise in childhood (and adult) obesity has marched hand in hand with the advent of fast food and the sharp decline in playtime and exercise for today’s kids. Both the eating and sleeping habits of any obese child should be investigated and considered in attempting to address the disorder.

Warning Signs Of Inadequate Sleep

While childhood obesity is currently a subject of serious debate and importance, some of the other negative effects of a sleep deficit in young people are of equal concern. Consider the following behaviors and dangers that can be caused by inadequate sleep:

  • inability to concentrate and pay attention
  • decreased academic performance
  • delayed response/reaction time
  • short-term memory deficiencies
  • poor emotional health
  • asleep-at-the wheel accidents among kids who are driving

If children are irritable, having difficulties in school, showing evidence of being unable to recall recent events or lessons or simply looking or acting weary, examining their sleep patterns is a smart thing to do. A doctor should be contacted if a child exhibits signs of restless sleeping, including tossing and turning, loud snoring or periods of insomnia. Something as simple as swollen tonsils can also be a culprit in robbing a child of sleep.

Teachers should be on the lookout for signs of sleep-deprived children: falling asleep in class, hyperactivity (the body attempting to compensate for being so tired), and the inability to concentrate can all be signs of sleeplessness. It’s hard to mention these concerns to parents, but many times they are unaware of the high price their child pays for staying up too late at night.

Tips For Healthy Zzzzzs

Early, Consistent Bedtimes – Children often resist going to bed. Creating a consistent bedtime routine can help immensely, especially if it involves things they do enjoy, like a warm bath, book, and cuddling. Being consistent with the bedtime routine, and with bedtime itself, lets them know what to expect and when. If you find that their bedtime has gotten too late, start moving it up in small increments – 15 minutes at a time.

Dietary Issues – Both caffeine and sugar are stimulants to the body. Black and green tea, coffee, caffeine sodas and sugary snacks and desserts can impair anyone’s ability to fall asleep at night. An amazing number of processed foods contain high fructose corn syrup and additives like food dyes; eliminating these kinds of foods from a child’s diet can have a very positive effect.

Environmental Factors – Where do children sleep? Is the room clean or cluttered? Is it a comfortable temperature? Is the mattress the best you can afford? Are heavily scented, chemical cleaning products being used in the room, potentially causing irritation of the sinuses? Ideally, the place a child sleeps should be dedicated to just that activity and should be kept soothing, quiet and clean. When it’s time for lights out, make sure the room is completely dark (no streetlights streaming in the windows or beams coming under the door) with the possible exception of a soft nightlight for little ones who are afraid of the dark.

Exercise – Unfortunately, many schools have cut back on gym, recess, and other physical activities. Every effort should be made to include these each day; study after study shows that exercise during the day (not right before bed) helps one to sleep soundly. A before or after school walk can be a help here, and in the homeschool environment, make sure part of every day involves time for physical activity. A surplus of unused energy can keep children awake.

Light – Seasonal Affective Disorder can seriously alter sleeping patterns at different times of the year. If a child exhibits insomnia during the winter months, for example, they simply may not be getting enough sunlight. Consider installing light bulbs in the house that mimic the sun’s spectrum during long periods of dark weather. Schools with florescent lights can also add table lamps to classrooms so that children receive more light. Exposure to sunlight during the day sets the child’s internal clock, so that sleep comes more easily at night.

Stress – A single stressful experience can cause sleep problems for days, weeks or months. It’s vital that teachers, parents, and children are in good communication about anything stressful that may be going on in the family, the classroom, or in the child’s own life. This could be as serious as the death of a loved one or as simple as seeing something scary on TV. If insomnia or nightmares become frequent, it’s very important that parents work to identify the possible cause in order to help re-establish a child’s comfort in going to sleep at night.

Making Sleep a Priority

Ensuring that a child gets enough sleep can be a sacrifice. It can mean less time with parents at night, after a long day at school. It can mean missing late-night events and parties, or even daytime events if a child still naps. Many parents tell me, “But he won’t go to sleep before 10!” What they don’t realize is that lack of sleep perpetuates lack of sleep. A child who is up until 10 every night is producing extra hormones – primarily cortisol – to keep them awake. Putting them on an earlier schedule (say, bedtime by 8) would be a difficult adjustment, but if the parents stuck with it, the child’s body would adapt and begin to produce less cortisol, making it easier for them to fall asleep earlier.

The book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Dr. Marc Weissbluth is sometimes called the “sleep bible”, and with good reason. I’ve got a well-worn copy of my own, and I’ve given this book countless times as a baby shower gift. Dr. Weissbluth clearly explains how much sleep is needed for each age group, and why and how sleep works. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. While it does give quite a bit of information about infants and sleep, Dr. Weissbluth also addresses a child’s changing sleep needs up into adolescence.

I’ll never forget one little girl that was in my class. Her mother was a single parent who picked her up at 6:00 pm every day. By the time they ate dinner, watched TV, and played, the little girl wasn’t in bed until 10. Not only did she fall asleep during class – right on her rug on the floor – but she had a very difficult time recalling information like math facts or spelling words. It was all made clear to me when I read a study that showed that when we sleep, our minds are reviewing the days’ events, strengthening the connections that were made during the day. If we don’t get enough deep (REM) sleep, the connections aren’t strengthened and we remember very little of what we learned the day before.

Situations like the one above are complicated for everyone involved, and I don’t mean to underplay the very difficult situation that single parents – and working parents – face. There’s no easy answer. I do know that parents who choose to put sleep first, sometimes saying ‘no’ to tempting alternatives, will raise children who are happier, healthier, and better able to learn. Sleep is just that important.