Are Late Bedtimes Bad for Kids?

A Nation of Night Owls

Once kids begin to wake up early for day care, school, or other activities, late bedtimes can lead to insufficient sleep. Kids, like adults, can't function properly when they're tired; they become cranky and inattentive. "Lack of sleep can have really devastating consequences on the child's mood and performance," Dr. Owens says. It can also tax the body, causing stress that stunts proper physical growth.

My family is hardly the only one burning the midnight oil. "I can't tell you how many families I hear about with little ones up until 10:00 or 11:00 at night," says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., director of behavioral pediatrics of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and author of Sleeping Through the Night: How Infants, Toddlers and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night's Sleep (HarperCollins, 1997). In many homes, hectic family schedules and the reluctance of late-working parents to pack their kids off to bed early are driving the longer days. In other households, sheer parental exhaustion is allowing kids to win the sleeptime skirmishes.

And, unlike mine, most households don't have the luxury of leisurely mornings. The result, recent research suggests, is an abundance of drowsy kids. In a study by the National Sleep Foundation, 60 percent of children under 18 complained of feeling tired during the day, and 15 percent reported falling asleep in school. A Brown University study of 500 children in kin-dergarten through fourth grade found that more than a third of them had sleep-related problems.

It's not always easy to tell whether your child is getting enough sleep, experts say. Tired kids don't necessarily act tired, according to Dr. Mindell. On the contrary, as they struggle against their urge to snooze, they may become overactive.

One clue that a child isn't sleeping enough, Dr. Mindell says, is that he constantly conks out in the car even on short trips. Eye rubbing, irritability, and aggressive behavior are other tip-offs. A child who needs a lot of prodding to start moving in the morning may be hitting the hay too late.

But the fact that a child gets up on her own isn't necessarily a sign that she's fully rested. "We have very, very strong internal clocks," Dr. Mindell points out. "Some children will wake up at a certain hour no matter what time they go to bed."

Sleep deprivation, paradoxically, can lead to restless sleep and to a child's rising too early. In fact, when parents complain to Dr. Mindell that their child is up with the birds, she routinely advises them to try putting the child to bed earlier. Often, she says, this step helps the child snooze more soundly and stay in bed longer.

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