Kids are not getting enough sleep. That’s the consensus of multiple research teams, who point out that this sleep deprivation is hurting kids academically, mentally, emotionally and physically.
Because so many parents have their own struggles with sleep yet somehow manage to make it through the day, they may be unaware of the far bigger risks sleeplessness poises for their kids. (And before any parent out there says, “We struggled with sleep in our era too,” note that since the 1940s Americans on average have lost more than an hour of sleep per night.)
Kids making Cs, Ds, and Fs in school are getting 25-30 fewer minutes of sleep at night.
Just how important is sleep with kids? Child development experts believe sleep is no less important than nutrition or physical safety. Before age two, a child will have spent the majority of his life sleeping. And healthy kids will spend 40% of their childhoods sleeping. Yeah, sleep is that important.
So what happens when you start reducing those hours of sleep? Research shows that the loss of just one hour of sleep can pose real, long-term risks to a developing brain. One study found that such losses in the first three years of life “was associated with hyperactivity / impulsivity and lower cognitive performance on neurodevelopment tests at age six.”
In other words, if your child isn’t getting enough sleep today, not only is it harming her in the near-term, it could lead to longer-term problems. Let’s look at some of those consequences.
Obesity & Diabetes
Studies have demonstrated that sleep deprivation in kids (and adults, for that matter) leads to metabolic changes that can result in insulin resistance. One study by Johns Hopkins University showed that for each additional hour of sleep, the risk of a child being overweight dropped by 9% – something to ponder given our current twin epidemics in childhood obesity and diabetes.
Kids who don’t get enough sleep struggle with poor memory, decision-making skills, and attention spans. One study showed that the kids making Cs, Ds, and Fs in school were getting, on average, 25-30 fewer minutes of sleep at night.
Young athletes who get fewer than eight hours of sleep per night are twice as likely to suffer an injury.
A sleep-deprived body is likely to see its amygdala kick into gear. This ‘old brain’ function is responsible for the classic fight or flight response, which is good when someone needs to, you know, fight or flee. But the same stress hormones that cause that response – cortisol, primarily – can be hard on the body in big or recurring doses (inflammation, heart disease, you name it).
Performance & Pain
Does your child enjoy sports? Well, his performance is going to be impacted by sleep deprivation. And research also shows he’s far more likely to be injured. One study showed young athletes who get fewer than eight hours of sleep per night are twice as likely to suffer an injury.
Sleep is central to a strong immune system. As most parents know, schools are breeding grounds for illness, and sleep deprivation makes it more difficult for their kids to fight off infections. If your child is succumbing to one cold after another, consider his or her sleep habits. Helping our kids get enough sleep is “almost like another vaccine we can give our kids to help them fight off illness and promote physical wellbeing,” says Dr. Cora Breuner of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Parents of teens in particular know just how moody a child can get. But inadequate sleep has been shown to exacerbate these negative effects on mood, while also contributing to decreased attention spans and loss of memory. Sleep deprivation also leads to potentially dangerous behaviors, lick impulsiveness – something that gets kids in trouble far too often.
Helping Kids Sleep
So how, precisely, do parents ensure their kids are getting enough sleep?
Because every child is different and factors like age, growth spurts, rigorous athletic schedules, extracurricular activities, and after school jobs must also be taken into account, experts recommend that parents create a sleep baseline for their child. You can start with existing baselines for each age group.
Remember, no televisions, tablets, computers or smartphones in the bedroom!
How? By keeping track of how many hours your child sleeps uninterrupted during a prolonged break in normal activities (i.e. during a holiday, summer vacation, spring break, etc.). Work with your child to confirm when he or she hits the sack and what time they rise. Within a few days you’ll have your baseline.
Then, create a sleep schedule and environment conducive to that schedule. For starters, kids need exercise. With schools cutting physical education and gym classes, it’s more important than ever that kids get outside and play or join a local athletic league.
Also, ensure your child’s environment is conducive to sleep. The room should be quiet, dark, and physically comfortable. Common sense, right?
But remember, too – and this is a biggie – that a child’s room is no place for televisions, tablets, computers, and other devices with electronic screens! As the body tires and its normal circadian rhythms tell it the end of the day is near, the human brain releases hormones to help us sleep. But digital screens confuse that process, creating agitation and leading to sleeplessness. No screens!