Why the Quality of Kids' Sleep Is Just as Important as Quantity

Yesterday I got to attend a panel discussion on children's sleep and I learned so much. While I think a lot about whether my eight-year-old daughter is getting the right quantity of shuteye, I rarely think about the quality of her slumber. I guess I just assumed kids sleep well—why wouldn't they? A lot of reasons, apparently, and a bad night's rest can have serious health consequences for kids, just like it does for adults.

Organized by Sleep Number, the mattress company, the panel included: Dr. Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Boston's Children's Hospital and an internationally recognized expert on pediatric sleep; Pete Bils, the VP of sleep innovation, clinical research, for Sleep Number, and a member of the National Sleep Foundation; Alison Sweeney, host of "The Biggest Loser" and a mom of two school-aged kids who is now focusing on sleep as the third pillar to wellness, along with nutrition and exercise; and Meredith Sinclair, a mom of two teenagers and a parenting expert.

As Alison Sweeney pointed out in the discussion, sleep for infants and toddlers is discussed extensively: How much? When? What is your bedtime routine? What is your napping schedule? When should we move out of the crib? And on and on. Once children reach age three or four, however, we pretty much stop talking about it. Sure, you might look up how many hours a night your kid is supposed to be getting, but that's about it. Bedtime routines start to disappear as kids get older, and by the time they are teenagers, most parents aren't setting bedtimes.

These are big mistakes, says Dr. Owens. Parents should be helping kids develop their own relaxing bedtime routines to set them up for a lifetime of good sleep habits—and this does not include falling asleep in front of the TV or with any electronic device! The light emitted from them disrupts our body's production of the sleep hormone, melatonin. Plus, kids should always have set bedtimes, even on weekends and vacations. She recommends no more than an hour deviation from bedtimes for "special occasions" or you end up setting up a "jet lag" cycle of trying to make up for lost z's. And, this may be shocking, but parents should even set bedtimes for high schoolers! Worried you couldn't enforce a bedtime with a teenager? Dr. Owens has a solution: Take away the car keys if they don't go to bed on time. Driving drowsy has been shown to be as dangerous as driving drunk, after all.

How can you tell if your kid isn't getting enough sleep or quality sleep? Truth is, they may not be telling you about a bad night's sleep, even if you ask, or even aware of it themselves. Dr. Owens says if your child requires an alarm and is difficult to wake in the morning for school, sleeps later when given the opportunity (like on weekends), and/or falls asleep spontaneously outside of his or her bed, these are all signs he or she is sleep deprived. My daughter is definitely hard to wake on school mornings, despite getting the recommended 10 to 11 hours for her age group, and tends to sleep later on weekends. This makes me suspect the quality of her sleep is not up to par.

What could cause a kid to have a bad night's sleep? Stress over an upcoming test at school and an uncomfortable sleeping environment are two reasons—Dr. Owens says most parents don't know the model or age of their child's mattress. More serious—and just as common—causes are sleep apnea and restless legs. Yes, kids have these conditions, too! Dr. Owens said some parents may think snoring is a sign that their child is sleeping deeply, but it could actually be a sign of obstructed breathing. Does your kid kick off the blankets every night? That might be a sign of periodic limb movement, which indicates restless sleep. If you suspect your child has any of these issues, talk about it with your pediatrician. (I'm doing this next week!)

Related: Solutions for Kids' Sleep Problems

When my daughter is tired, she is incredibly moody and not super pleasant to be around. But, beyond making them cranky, not enough or low quality sleep can have some pretty serious consequences. Sleep deprived kids have problems with attention, focus, and impulse control, to the level that they might exhibit symptoms of ADHD when really they are just tired. Poor sleep also can lead to obesity, diabetes, and other health issues. It's a big deal.

Sleep Number hosted this panel discussion as part of its lead up to launching the SleepIQ bed for kids, which will be available later this year. Because, like all Sleep Number beds, you can adjust the firmness of the mattress, it can adjust as kids' bodies grow and change to provide the proper support, comfort, and spinal alignment.Its SleepIQ technology monitors average breathing, average heart rate and movement, using a full-body algorithm to assess quality of sleep, and assigning a SleepIQ score for each night's sleep. The information collected is sent to a "dashboard" on a computer or handheld device so parents can see the quantity and quality of their child's sleep and make adjustments to routines, such as exercise, caffeine, and screen time, to improve it. It also has a lot of cool features: head-tilt for stuffy heads or reading in bed; alerts to parents when the child gets out of bed or is restless; rewards for bedtime routines; remote nightlight control; under-bed guidelights that turn on when the child gets out of bed; and a monster detector. Who doesn't want that?!

Whether a SleepIQKids bed is in your future or not, the point is we need to pay more attention to our child's sleep habits, quantity, and quality. It's an important aspect of their overall health. If you focus on providing them with the right nutrition and exercise but neglect their sleep, you're still putting their health at risk.

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Ellen Sturm Niz is a New York City-based editor and writer who probably has sleep apnea. Follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.

Image via Shutterstock.

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