Why Kids Need Sleep and How Parents Can Help
Who doesn’t covet sleep? Spending enough time under the covers eludes many parents, especially when raising young children. When I think back to 15 and 11 years ago when I had, and brought home, my beautiful sons, the one negative that comes to mind is the erratic and irregular sleeping habits that characterized our household. As one who really needs her sleep (and is admittedly often in PJs at around 9 P.M.), I can’t say that I miss walking around exhausted, irritable, and listless during most of those days. (I do miss my sons’ endless hugs and kisses, but I digress…)
We all know that getting enough high quality sleep is important. But as reported in a recent article in the New York Times and covered on the Today show, most of us sleep a lot less (and well) than we should. And while sleep is essential for us all, it’s absolutely critical for growing children and adolescents.
Studies suggest that kids who don’t sleep enough tend to weigh more than kids who do. One study found that three to four year-old Brazilian children who slept less had higher body weights than those who slept longer. On average, the children who were overweight slept an average of 23 minutes less than normal weight children. Another study found that compared to sleeping at least 10 hours nightly, less than 10 hours per night on weekdays was associated with higher body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference among adolescents. Another study in the Netherlands found that short sleep duration was associated with overweight among four to 13 year-old boys and nine to 13 year-old girls (but not those aged four to eight). Researchers also found a strong link between less sleep and more tv time and computer use (a big shocker, I know).
Not enough sleep may also reduce kids’ heart health. A recent study found that lower quality sleep and higher sleep disturbance was linked with increased cardiovascular risk, increased risk of hypertension, and higher unhealthy cholesterol levels. Other research suggests that sleep deprivation can significantly impair kids’ daytime neurobehavioral function and contribute to academic struggles, challenging behaviors, substance abuse and other problems.
If that wasn’t enough, a study of one to 14 year-olds also found that sleeping less than eight hours a day was linked with a higher risk of accidental falls.
So what are parents to do—especially during the summer, when schedules are ever-changing due to travel and other activities? Here are six tips to help your kids (and you) get the sleep you need this summer and beyond:
Know the number: According to the National Sleep Foundation, daily sleep needs for one to three year-olds is about 12 to 14 hours; for three to five year-olds, it’s about 11 to 13 hours; and five to 12 year-olds should aim for 10 to 11 hours.
Have a routine. Clinical Psychologist Michael Breus, PhD says bedtimes should be consistent, and that each child in the family should have his or her own bedtime based on age and stage. To help kids get on a healthy routine, Dr. Breus says it’s all about consistency and ritual. “I advise parents to help their kids create a routine that includes meals at least two to three hours before bed, no electronics for at least an hour before bed, minimal amounts of physical activity before bed, and dim lights in the bedroom,” says Breus.
Cap the nap. Sometimes, even the best-intentioned parents want their kids to take a nap—even when they’re not due for or don’t need one. According to University of Pennsylvania researcher Michael Grandner, PhD, “Sometimes getting young kids to fall asleep in the car while traveling seems like a respite from the extra stress of a car trip. But if kids nap for too long, or too late in the day, parents and kids may be in for a rough night.” Grandner says that not only will kids’ “hunger” for sleep be less powerful at night when you actually want them to sleep, but they’re likely to wake up cranky, tired, and irritable (and we’ve all seen this happen). He suggests keeping naps to the early afternoon, for a limited time, to protect sleep at night. Dr. Breus adds, “If no longer age appropriate (by about age five), naps are out as they will only delay sleep onset.”
Get back on track. When your kids’ bedtime routine is sidetracked by vacations, celebrations, and ever-changing summer schedules, helping your kids get the sleep they need can be a big challenge. Although he recommends staying on a set sleep schedule as often as possible, Breus knows that sometimes it’s not possible. He does recommend, however, that kids who get off track on sleep get back on as soon as possible. Although he doesn’t suggest putting kids to bed earlier, Breus says it’s OK to do so if the sleep they were getting was really poor.
Stay in the zone. According to Grandner, vacations—especially across time zones—can create plenty of sleep challenges. He says, “Keep track of where kids’ internal clock is and try to avoid bright light when you want their bodies to think it is “night.” He also suggests exposing kids to bright sunlight when you want their bodies to think it is “morning,” and keeping routines from home—like reading a book before bed time—the same when away.
Look for the flags. According to Breus, your child’s sleep problems may be something worth discussing with a pediatrician or sleep doctor if his or her behavior seems out of control (Breus says kids have a tendency to act wild when tired, almost looking like ADD); they snore; or if they won’t go to sleep, and bedtime is a nightly struggle.
How do you help your kids get the sleep they need?
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