Sleep. Parents crave it; kids fight it. And it’s one of the most important foundations to a successful day of learning.
Today’s kindergartners sleep 30 minutes less per night than their parents did at the same age. Sixty percent of high school students say they are sleepy during the day—with 25 percent reporting that they fall asleep during class.
Sleep loss comes at great physical, cognitive and behavioral cost. Four Valley experts talk about the consequences of too little sleep, and what families can do about it.
Why don’t kids today get enough sleep? What’s changed?
When you combine today’s culture of over-scheduled extracurricular activities, homework, and sports with the distraction of high-tech gadgetry, the result is kids who stay up later and later, says Phoenix Children’s Hospital pediatric sleep medicine specialist Rupali Drewek, M.D. “iPods, computers, the TV—they all delay bedtime and kids still have to get up in the morning for school.”
It’s a myth to think that watching TV or a movie helps kids wind down, adds Drewek. Watching a lighted screen of any kind stimulates the brain and can delay the drop in core body temperature and production of melatonin required for sleep.
Checking text messages delays sleep as well, says Michael Eichenberg, RPSGT, a polysomnographic technologist and clinical manager of Banner Desert Sleep Center. Kids are getting cell phones at increasingly younger ages and many report being tired throughout the day from texting in bed after lights out.
“It’s an unstructured activity with no end to it,” says Eichenberg. “You could text all night long and the content could be adding stress or act as a stimulant as you try to fall asleep.”
Hectic lives and a 24-hour society contribute to fewer hours of sleep, says Eichenberg. Families often run errands later in the evening instead of settling in to consistent bedtime routines. Kids who live in dual-custody situations may find that the rules and patterns differ from house to house.
How does lack of sleep affect children and teens?
“Sleep leads to the secretion of hormones that allow us to grow when we are young and keep us healthy as we get older,” says Matthew Troester, M.D., a pediatric neurologist at St. Joseph’s Barrow Neurological Institute.
In infants and young children, growth hormone is secreted almost exclusively during “slow wave sleep,” the deep sleep that makes you feel refreshed when you awaken and is critical for development. “You simply cannot and will not grow if there is an inadequate amount of slow wave sleep,” he says.
Troester, who specializes in pediatric epilepsy and sleep medicine, says that proper sleep protects us, particularly as the brain develops, from the nonstop flow of information and environmental stimulation that comes at us each day.
Sleep also helps us retain memories—and that’s critical for the school years. During sleep, fresh information uploads to different regions of the brain. Processing occurs during each stage of sleep, so the more jam-packed the lessons of the school day, the more time a student needs to sleep at night to consolidate those memories. Waking up refreshed leads to more thoughtful insights and associations when learning begins the next day.
When a child is not getting enough sleep, cognitive performance is affected, says Najma Usmani, M.D., Scottsdale Healthcare sleep medicine specialist. “They’re unable to focus, and grades go down.” She recommends looking at sleep issues first when a child is diagnosed with ADD or ADHD or has other behavioral challenges. Research suggests that as many as 25 percent of kids diagnosed with ADHD actually have an underlying sleep disorder, https://neurofitnessfoundation.org/ambien-zolpidem/; treatment by a sleep specialist may cause the attention deficit to vanish.
Insufficient sleep affects the physical body, too. Researchers who studied obesity and sleep duration recently determined that kids under the age of 4 who get fewer than 10 hours of sleep per night are 50 percent more likely to be obese. Another study found that sleep-deprived participants produced higher levels of a hormone that increases appetite. Even for parents who are trying to loose body fat, sleep matters.
Some tips on how to help everyone get more sleep:
•Establish a time for lights out and avoid oversleeping on weekends. Shifting bedtimes and wake-up times by more than a few hours disturbs the body clock just like jet lag.
• Establish a routine, beginning in the toddler years: bath, read, turn on soothing music, etc.
• Use the bedroom for sleep only—no desks, computers, TVs or video games. Usmani suggests that reading time take place on a living room sofa and not in bed.
• Put babies down to sleep when they are awake; don’t set up a “rock her to sleep” pattern.
• Cut off all screen use at least an hour before bed.
• Make sure the thermostat is set at a cool temperature.
• Set up a family charging station for phones in the kitchen. Do not allow them in the bedroom during the evening.
• Beware of caffeine consumption in the afternoon, including sodas, coffees and energy drinks.
• Warm milk, if it helps, is fine. But putting heavier foods in the belly at night can influence the quality of sleep.
See a sleep specialist if your child:
• Falls asleep consistently at inappropriate times (at school, at a stop light, etc.).
• Seems sleepy or fatigued during the day.
• Frequently wakes up during the night.
• Wakes up in the morning with headaches.
• Sleeps restlessly or has frequent sleep disturbances.
• Wets the bed after age 6.
• Snores regularly.
• Suffers a sudden decline in cognitive performance or an unexpected drop in grades.
• Complains that their legs are bothering them at night or at rest.