From the December 2019 issue

The Serious Effects of Too Little Sleep in Kids

Most kids aren't getting enough zzz's – and the effects of too little sleep include a negative impact on academic performance and social and emotional well-being.

Illustration by Jay Holladay

I’m sleep deprived. As I’m writing this, I’ve hit my 2:30 p.m. wall and am feeling the effects of a 3 a.m. wake up with my 2 1/2-year-old son. On days like this, when I’ve slept way less than I probably should, it’s clear that I’m not my best self.

In fact, I’m more sensitive, I’ve eaten more sweets (that I’ve supposedly sworn off of unless it’s an actual holiday) and … well, you get the idea.

As adults juggling work, children and household, we’re all a bit sleep deprived, but what about our kids? Are they getting enough rest each night?

Not quite – at least according to a study that analyzed information from parents or caregivers of 49,050 children ages 6-17. It found that only half of children in the United States get enough sleep each night.

And for those who don’t, that deficit negatively impacts academic performance, along with social and emotional well-being.

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Children, in general, should be getting eight to nine hours of sleep at night, says Dr. Ibrahim Abdulhamid, the chief of pulmonary medicine and director of the Pediatric Sleep Lab at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. However, that’s often not the case, particularly for adolescents.

“Our modern lifestyle, in addition to the use of electronic media and early school start times, are all major factors in delaying bedtime and reducing sleep duration,” Abdulhamid says. It’s a big problem for kids, but there are ways to build better bedtime habits at home. Read on for Abdulhamid’s advice.

Impacts of under-sleeping

Adolescents are particularly at risk for delayed sleep phase syndrome, Abdulhamid notes. These individuals fall asleep later than they should – at 2, 3 or 4 a.m. – and have significant difficulty waking up at regular morning hours, which can have a major impact on several aspects of their lives.

Much like adults struggle to function and have mood issues on the days they are sleep deprived, the same happens for children and teens.

“There are multiple adverse reactions and side effects to having delayed sleep onset and short sleep time,” Abdulhamid explains. “These include cognitive, behavioral and academic dysfunction. Affected children probably will have less attention on tasks – especially school tasks.”

An inability to concentrate during class time can lead to decreased academic performance, which researchers also note.

A child’s weight can be impacted, as well.

“They will have a higher level of stress hormones, such as cortisol,” he adds, in addition to ghrelin, which is a hormone made by the gastric mucosa. High cortisol and ghrelin levels can increase craving for carbs, reduce motivation for physical activity, increase blood sugar levels and cause excessive weight gain.

Better bedtimes

Consistency is key when it comes to bedtime – whether your child is 6 or 16.

“It is important to advise affected children to have regular sleep hours on weekends, weekdays and holidays. Try to keep a regular, consistent sleep routine,” Abdulhamid says.

While a child might want to sleep in until noon on Saturday and Sunday, that late wake-up time can cause some serious sleep issues on Sunday evening – and the disturbance in the routine can create a vicious cycle of delayed sleep time and short sleep duration.

If your child is a napper, make sure his or her nap lasts no longer than 15 to 20 minutes. Avoid late evening naps, as those lead to children not being tired at bedtime. Same with exercise, he notes. Late-evening gym sessions may affect their ability to fall asleep at an earlier bedtime.

Technology is a key culprit when it comes to sleep issues and, because families are constantly plugged in – whether it’s television, smartphones or tablets – it’s easy to allow those screens into their rooms at night. But you shouldn’t. In fact, children should avoid bright light and screens in the evening, period, so they don’t suppress melatonin and are able to sleep.

“It might also be useful for families, if possible, to turn off electronic media at a certain time in the evening,” Abdulhamid says. Turn off Wi-Fi, and give your family a chance to relax and get ready for bed.

Children – and parents – should not have a television in their bedrooms, he says. “It should always be far away from sleeping spaces.”

That sleep space should be free of school work, too.

“I advise people to avoid doing homework in their bedroom or on their bed,” Abdulhamid adds, because a child may end up associating their bedroom with frustration, stress or anxiety if they routinely perform their homework in the bedroom.

In some cases, taking a low dose of melatonin several hours before bedtime can help move sleep time along. Check with your doctor on this option.

“I also encourage them to try to wake up in the morning and be exposed to sunlight, because exposure to sunlight in the morning will suppress melatonin level in the morning,” he says, leading to a natural wake up.

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