Sleepless in America

The Roots of Bad Rest

Put simply, a problem sleeper suffers from either too little sleep or interrupted sleep. This can be brought on by parental styles or environmental factors, such as stress. Even mundane events like starting school or going on vacation can trigger sleep difficulties. And though these are usually short-lived, they can easily turn into long-term problems if a parent doesn't respond quickly and appropriately, says Dr. Mindell.

Some experts believe our fast-paced lifestyle has resulted in more children suffering from poor sleep. "Sleep is much less a priority in our society than it used to be," says Judith Owens, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at Brown University School of Medicine and director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Clinic at Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence. "We're a 24-hour-a-day society." And if kids are involved in after-school programs, then evening activities like dinner, homework, and bedtime routines get pushed back. Parents who are at work all day may want to spend more time with their children at night, so they gladly delay their kids' bedtimes, she adds.

Children also tend to go to sleep later as they get older and their circadian rhythm shifts. It's a normal phenomenon called sleep phase drift. But because they have to wake early -- high schools are starting class earlier than ever, says Dr. Owens -- they end up losing sleep. Though sleep drift has long been reported in adolescents and has recently compelled some high schools to begin classes later, new research shows that signs of sleep drift are evident in kids as young as 10 or 11.

The Hidden Causes of Sleep Problems

Some cultural factors are clearly at work. Increasingly, though, doctors are finding that many childhood sleep problems are medically based -- and closely linked to behavioral problems. These problems can be serious: "Sleep deprivation affects a child's motor skills, creativity, problem-solving skills, and attention span, and it leads to hyperactivity and poor impulse control," says Dr. Owens. The most common medical cause of poor sleep is obstructive sleep apnea syndrome (OSAS), which affects 1% to 3% of kids, generally between the ages of 2 and 6. It's usually caused by large tonsils and adenoids, which block the throat and decrease the oxygen flow, leading to mini-disruptions in sleep.

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