Erica Harris is no stranger to dealing with sleep problems in kids. Her children, Greyson, 5, and Reagan, 3, both had surgery last year for sleep apnea, which constantly interrupted their slumber each night. Reagan's sleep issues improved, but Greyson was still waking up every few hours. "He was combative, had horrible listening," says Harris of Johns Creek, Georgia. "His teacher pulled me aside and said he was overtired and falling asleep in school."
Her story is a common one. Experts at Children's Hospital Colorado say millions of American children suffer from sleeping issues. In a 2014 study by the National Sleep Foundation, parents reported their children 6 to 10 years old were averaging 8.9 hours per night as opposed to the recommended 10 to 11 hours for that age group.
Sleep deprivation in kids can lead to weight gain, problems in school and behavioral changes, says Ann Halbower, the hospital's director of pediatric sleep research. Inadequate sleep affects the part of the brain that controls cognitive abilities, notes Gary Montgomery, medical director at the Children's Sleep Center at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. Children with this problem often have trouble staying alert and concentrating, particularly in class.
Technology is one culprit, Halbower says. The Sleep Foundation study found that 72 percent of children ages 6 to 17 who have an electronic device on in their rooms all night sleep up to one hour less, on average, than those who shut them off.
"TVs, tablets, phones – all have a spectrum of blue light that is the most potent suppressor of melatonin, our brain's neurotransmitter that regulates our sleep-wake cycles," Halbower says. Melatonin, which is triggered by darkness, makes people drowsy and helps them sleep better. Other hormones tied to the sleep-wake cycle also aid in regulating appetite and metabolism. When kids get out of whack with poor sleep patterns, they start grabbing high-carb and high-fat food "like they are starving," Halbower says.
So how can parents tell if a child is sleep deprived? "They'll get irritable and cranky," says Mary Carskadon, director of Sleep and Chronobiology at E.P. Bradley Hospital, and "unfocused and inattentive" – symptoms that can be misdiagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Changes in eating patterns and weight gain are also red flags.
To combat the problem, Halbower recommends setting aside 30 to 60 minutes to prepare for sleep. Hot baths and physical activity should end before this final hour. If the body is cool, it's easier for kids to slip into a deeper sleep, she says. The environment, too, should be cool – and dark and comfortable.
It also helps to set a regular bedtime and wake-up routine. It took three months until Greyson adjusted to a new schedule and could sleep through the night, but "it's so worth it," Harris says. Now it's her son who tells her when it's time for his nighttime snack – the first step in their routine that includes a shower and bedtime stories. If children have nighttime fears, parents can help by offering reassurance or by sharing a light moment, Montgomery says.
Since studies have found that early school start times negatively impact student performance, some schools nationwide have begun to open later. Teenagers may especially benefit. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that high school students who get fewer than eight hours of sleep are more likely to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes and seriously consider suicide. And sleepy teen drivers are particularly accident-prone. Kyla Wahlstrom, a University of Minnesota senior research fellow, found that two public school communities in Minnesota and Wyoming that moved to later start times saw teen car crashes drop 65 and 70 percent respectively in one year. Experts hope results like these will lead many more schools to follow suit.
Sleep, Health and Performance: Solving Bedtime Blues was originally published on U.S. News & World Report.
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