When you ask someone how they are doing these days, one of the most typical responses is, “I’m tired.” Parents juggle a dozen things at any given time, and we often stay up late in order to get more done after the kids go to bed.
But we’re not the only ones who are tired, according to some recent studies on kids’ health.
Sleep deprivation is a common occurrence for adults. Work, stress, family – all the responsibilities keep us too busy to get much sleep, or cause us to lose quality sleep due to the stress and anxiety of all we have to do. But what is not well-known is that nearly one-third of all kids in the U.S. are not getting enough sleep either. And lack of sleep can be far more difficult for a child to handle than an adult.
A recent study was conducted by a pediatric team at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University. The lead author, Dr. Hoi See Tsao, found that many parents underestimate how much sleep kids really need. Even when younger children follow their natural sleep patterns, it may not be enough. Overstimulation during the day, interrupted nap times, their diet or an onset of illness can wreak havoc with sleep.
And then there are the older kids who we may think need less sleep. The truth is, kids over 5 or 6 years of age up until the teen years need between 9 and 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night! And even high schoolers need to get between 8 and 10 hours of sleep nightly, a lot to ask with all the schoolwork, part-time jobs, sports practices, and social obligations they take on.
Just like with adults, lack of sufficient, quality sleep can cause irritability, trouble focusing, and difficulty completing tasks. For younger kids, this can result in behavioral challenges — with older kids, poor school performance and lack of interest in extracurricular activities. And with older teens, it can be downright dangerous as they start working or begin to drive, as sleep deprivation is a leading cause of workplace and traffic accidents.
The Brown University study looked at the sleep habits of nearly 50,000 kids and teens. Parents were questioned about their children’s habits and interests, as well as their sleep schedules. More than a third of kids 6 to 12 weren’t getting adequate sleep. Of high schoolers, just under a third were sleep deprived.
But it’s the results of this lack of sleep that really prove the need for meeting the minimum recommendations.
Of the approximate one-third of kids and teens not meeting recommended sleep hours, well more than half lost interest in learning new things or participating in activities they may otherwise enjoy. And nearly half of those children also lost interest in homework (often not doing it at all) or about doing well in school.
In addition to these consequences, teenagers also have a significant increase in loss of self-control when faced with a stressful situation and loss of interest in meeting a challenge – factors that are quite detrimental as teens are navigating their way toward being successful adults.
There are some obvious reasons for kids not getting enough sleep. Too much screen time, especially right before bed, inhibits the ability to fall asleep quickly for both kids and adults. Poverty is also a big issue. Kids may go to bed hungry, be too warm or too cold, and may even take on some of the emotional stress associated with struggling to have the basics.
Although we may not be able to solve all of the problems that cause kids to lose sleep, we can do our best to minimize the obvious interferences. Screen time should always be limited – we all know that – but all kids and even teens (it won’t be easy) should put away devices at least an hour prior to bedtime. We’re guilty of it too, so being a good role model means doing the same – and it will improve our sleep quality as well!
For kids who fight sleep, routines are always important. Doing relaxing activities together will give everyone a little family time and provide a calm environment to end the day. A warm bath, stories or calming music, or any quiet activity done at the same time each night will help kids to unwind. It’s also important not to eat too close to bedtime, and obviously, healthy diet and exercise helps promote sleep.
For kids who are losing sleep because they are worried or anxious, stressed or overwhelmed, it’s important to let them know you are always willing to talk it out and offer support. Even teenagers will find that being able to talk about what’s on their mind will go a long way toward getting some rest at the end of the day.
Some pediatricians say they’re surprised by the results of the study – because they expected that far more than one-third of U.S. kids are not getting enough sleep. But we can change things one child at a time – with our own – by helping them learn good habits that lead to adequate, quality sleep.