Need to sleep
Author: Sara Rider

We’ve all had the friend with the newborn who sleeps through the night the day after coming home from the hospital. Or the co-worker who insists that getting her seven-year-old to go to bed – and stay in bed – is never a struggle. Far more rare, of course, is the neighbor who claims his teenager isn’t hard to get up in the mornings.

For many parents, one of the most challenging aspects of parenting is getting your children to go to bed, stay in bed and then get up on time. With both parents working in most families, these kinds of struggles can become more emotional and challenging. And the differences in sleep patterns between one child and a sibling can lead to even more complications. Throughout it all, many parents are concerned that their children aren’t getting enough sleep – and there remains the nagging certainty that all of this should be a lot simpler.

The truth is that the amount of sleep children need varies throughout their lives. And not all children need the same amount.

“Children develop at different rates. So one four-year-old may not require the same amount of sleep as another four-year-old,” explains Brian Kang, M.D., a board certified pediatric pulmonologist and the medical director of the Sleep Physiology and Neurodiagnostics Lab at Dell Children’s Medical Center.

How much sleep do kids need?
For all of us, sleep habits are shaped in many ways by the reality of the working day.

“Unfortunately, if you look at the amount of sleep we all require, it’s influenced by society,” says Dr. Kang. “So for kids, a lot of it is determined by school start times.” The other major determining factor in children’s sleep schedules is age. “A one-month-old usually needs approximately 16 hours of sleep,” he states. “By three months, it’s closer to 14 hours and by one year, it’s approximately 13 hours.”

The number continues to drop slowly until age six, where it holds constant at about 11 hours. For all children, the number of hours of sleep they need is a combination of sleep during the night and naps, though Dr. Kang notes that parents should attempt to consolidate naps into one long nap for young children.

Beginning in adolescence, children tend to want to go to bed later. “There’s a shift in their circadian rhythm,” reveals Dr. Kang. “But school start times, combined with the natural tendency to go to bed later, combined with all of the activities that are piled on them, [make it] a lot harder for kids to obtain the range of sleep they need.”

Many families count on catching up on sleep over the weekend. “To some degree it works, but you don’t completely compensate for the lack of sleep during the weekdays,” maintains Dr. Kang. “It’s not a complete reversal of sleep deprivation and the effects of sleep deprivation.”

Dangers of sleep deprivation
So what are the effects of too little sleep on kids and teens?

“It predominantly affects them in terms of their daytime behavior. It can make them sleepy so they have a hard time staying awake in school.

They may also fall asleep readily in a quiet setting – like riding in a car,” explains Dr. Kang.

Younger children who are not getting enough sleep may also act out. “Things like temper tantrums and outbursts may even get to the point where it is affecting school performance, but it’s because of difficulty focusing and paying attention,” he states.

Not getting enough sleep can also impact the immune system and can also affect a child’s weight and growth. “There are growth hormones that are released during sleep. So if children are not getting enough sleep, you run the risk of affecting the production of these various hormones and it affects their rate of growth,” Dr. Kang explains. Children who are sleep deprived may be smaller than their classmates both in terms of height and weight.

Sleep deprivation may even be a cause of hyperactivity. “One hypothesis for hyperactivity is that the child is not getting enough sleep,” suggests Dr. Kang. “The child’s developing brain seeks constant stimulation. These kids are craving stimulation – not necessarily productive stimulation – to try and stay awake.”

Other studies have shown potential links to other health problems, all because of sleep deprivation in children. “Numerous studies have seen some links to other health problems,” says Dr. Kang, “but we don’t have enough studies in kids to say what the effects are in the long term.”

For teens, the Mayo Clinic emphasizes the problems they can have concentrating at school, which can affect performance. More serious, says the Mayo Clinic, a lack a sleep can also lead to drowsy driving, which in turn can result in accidents.

Encouraging healthy sleep habits
So if sleep – or a lack of it – can have so much affect on your child’s health, how do you help your children or teens to get the sleep they need? According to Dr. Kang, much of it comes down to things most of us have heard before, and may have tried to practice: consistency. Routine. Repetition.

“Children are creatures of habit. So it’s important to establish routines about bedtime – but also about awakening,” offers Dr. Kang.

Most of us have been told that a routine bedtime is important, but Dr. Kang advises that the morning routine may be even more crucial. Getting your kids and teens up at the same time every day can help them be ready for bed at a time that might even result in them getting the sleep they need. (Though, of course, the thought of trying to rouse your teen out of bed on Saturday and Sunday at the same time as on a school day can be a little daunting…) If you’re not ready to take that step just yet, Dr. Kang stresses the importance of the bedtime routine for all ages.

“It’s important to create habits around bedtime: eliminating TV, video games and cell phone use for about an hour before bedtime. This allows the brain to settle down and be ready to go to sleep.

A lot of electronic products actually stimulate the brain.”
The Mayo Clinic advises a pre-bed quiet time for the entire family, focusing on quiet activities like reading, combined with lower light levels and less noise, and also repeating the same bedtime sequence of events for younger children.

For older children, it may be up to you as the parent to take a hard look at all of the extracurricular activities. An over-scheduled child – or over-extended parents – can have a hard time setting and following a routine that results in enough sleep. For teens who have a job, this can also mean limiting the number of hours that you allow them to work.

But for any of these strategies to work, bedtime has to be a priority. And for busy, over-worked families, that may be the hardest task of all.

Sara Rider is a native Austinite who has worked with physicians and hospitals throughout Texas. She frequently writes freelance articles on health topics for newspapers and magazines.

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