Sleep may be the most important, though overlooked, contributor to your children's development and health. The reality is that children can survive without exercise and on little food (though I don't recommend either), but all children need sleep. It's often unnoticed because you don't usually see your children sleeping and its benefits are not readily apparent (though its costs usually are).
The influence of sleep on children is profound. Quality sleep has been found to be associated with improved attention, reduced stress, greater emotional control, better mood, improved memory, greater ability to learn and return information, better grades, improved mental health, lower risk of obesity and other health problems, and longer life.
Sleep experts say that children ages 3 to 6 need 13 hours of sleep, 7-12 year olds should get 11 hours, and children ages 12 to 18 need nine hours of sleep each night. Disturbingly, children are staying up later and not getting enough sleep these days. One study found the value of "early to bed, early to rise" in which children who went to bed early and awoke early got more exercise and were healthier and thinner. In contrast, children who went to bed late and work up late were more likely to watch television, use computers, play video games, and snack on unhealthy foods during those late evening hours. Plus, they were more likely view advertising for junk food and fast food. The result was a trade-off of physical health for a more sedentary life.
Why are this generation's children not getting enough sleep? Not surprisingly, technology is one culprit. According to several surveys, upward of 70 percent of children have televisions in their bedrooms. A television's presence in children's bedrooms translates into more hours watching; according to one study, about 50 percent more than children without televisions in their bedrooms. Television viewing is, not surprisingly, significantly related to lack of sleep.
With the emergence of technology over the last decade, computers and access to the Internet have become another significant cause of late nights and lack of sleep (more than one-third of children have computers and Internet access in their bedrooms). Children are spending a substantial amount of time surfing the Web, interacting with social media, instant messaging, and playing online games.
An increasing amount of homework is also keeping children up at night. Homework has increased by 50 percent in the last three decades and much of that increase comes from more homework among early elementary school students. This despite considerable research that homework has only limited benefits to academic performance, particularly for younger students.
When you have tired children with too much homework, you also have an increase in the use of stimulants, such as caffeine, to keep them awake. In fact, one study reported that 75 percent of children consume caffeine daily. The ready availability of caffeinated sodas, the cultural acceptance and popularity of coffee (think Starbucks), and the ubiquity of energy drinks (think Red Bull) have created recent generations of caffeine "junkies," a habit likely to be continued into adulthood. The unfortunate side effect of these caffeinated kids is late nights awake and long days exhausted and overstimulated.
Given the obvious benefits of a good night's sleep and the clear harm caused by not enough sleep, it's your responsibility for ensuring that your children develop good sleep habits and get a good night's sleep. The great thing about sleep is there is a lot of practical steps you can take to help your children get more sleep.
It starts by recognizing the importance of quality sleep and making it a priority in your family and essential for your children. If sleep is important to you (and it should be because lack of sleep can bring out your worst as a parent), sleep will be important to your children.
At a practical level, create quality sleep habits for your children. These sleep practices include removing televisions and computers from your children's bedrooms. It also involves creating end-of-evening quiet time and consistent bedtime routines that encourage sleep (e.g., a warm bath and reading).
Of course, you can't control the amount of homework your children receive, but you can do your best to ensure that they devote sufficient time to it earlier in the day and evening. You should set limits on your children's use of technology while studying (e.g., a five-minute break every 30 minutes of studying).
The added benefit to these quality sleep practices is that your children won't feel the need to amp themselves up with stimulants to stay awake.
When you emphasize the importance of quality sleep and establish good sleep habits early in your children's lives, you give them a gift that keeps on giving. They will be happier, more energetic, have improved relationships, and they will perform better in school, sports, and other activities. And that is a great foundation for a long life of health and happiness.