Why Sleep Matters: When Kids Don't Get Enough Rest, Their Schoolwork Can Suffer-And So Can Their Health

By Kantrowitz, Barbara; Springen, Karen | Newsweek, September 22, 2003 | Go to article overview

Why Sleep Matters: When Kids Don't Get Enough Rest, Their Schoolwork Can Suffer-And So Can Their Health


Kantrowitz, Barbara, Springen, Karen, Newsweek


Byline: Barbara Kantrowitz and Karen Springen

Spend some time with the Dettmann family in Emmetsburg, Iowa, and you'll know why so many school-age kids wish they could throw their alarm clocks out the window. Tyler, a 17-year-old high-school senior, is usually up at dawn so he can make it to band or choir practice at 7:20 a.m. A couple of nights a week, he also works as a waiter at the local country club and doesn't get home until 9 p.m. Fifteen-year-old Travis, a sophomore, also gets to school early for choir and doesn't leave until after 6:30 because of football practice. Trevor, a 12-year-old seventh grader, plays football and participates in community theater. And every night, they all have at least an hour of homework. The biggest challenge for their mom, Sonya, is getting the boys to turn out the lights. "They don't think that they're tired," she says. "They look at the clock and say, 'I'm older this year. I shouldn't have to go to bed'."

In fact, that's exactly what they should do if they want to stay healthy. There's growing evidence that a chronic lack of sleep can lead to obesity, mimic the symptoms of attention deficit disorder and contribute to depression, among other ailments. Losing just a few hours of sleep a week makes a big difference. Brown University's Mary Carskadon, who studies children's sleep, says tired kids get lower grades, don't do as well in sports and have more emotional problems than youngsters who get adequate rest. "We used to think that sleep loss mostly had an effect on the brain," Carskadon says. "Now it's becoming more and more apparent that the effects are widespread." Teens are especially at risk. According to a survey by the National Sleep Foundation, only 15 percent reported sleeping at least 8.5 hours on school nights, the minimum doctors think they need. That sleep deprivation can be life-threatening. In one recent study of car accidents, nearly half of all drivers who fell asleep at the wheel were younger than 25.

As all parents know, getting kids to bed on time is a challenge at any age. The battles begin at birth. Newborns' sleep cycles are notoriously unpredictable, with a few taking long naps from the start, while many others seem to be alert (and crying) 24/7. No one knows exactly how many hours of sleep an individual baby needs, but the average is about 14.5 hours a day, according to the National Sleep Foundation. A regular sleep pattern should begin to emerge at about 6 weeks and, by the age of 1, most babies will make it through the night and take a couple of daytime naps as well. At that point, the best way to nurture healthy bedtime habits in young children is to follow a nightly routine that might include a bath and a story. Avoid TV or videos, which can overstimulate kids.

If a child still has problems getting to sleep, psychologist Jodi Mindell advises parents to take a look at "environmental problems" like street noise or curtains that let in too much light. Mindell, associate director of the Sleep Disorders Center at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, suggests buying room-darkening shades or fans to create white noise. With 2- to 8-year-olds, who like to stall around bedtime, Mindell recommends including all the nighttime requests you can think of (kissing the dog good night, going to the potty) in your pre-bed routine.

Once children enter school, parents often think they're losing control of bedtime because the days just don't seem long enough to fit in everyone's activities. Although the years between 3 and 12 used to be considered the "golden age" of sleep (between the obstacles of babyhood and adolescence), more recent research has shown that almost a third of elementary-age children experience sleep problems such as sleepwalking, night terrors, trouble falling asleep or narcolepsy. Parents might not realize what's wrong because tired kids aren't like weary adults. Kids often become inattentive and fidget more while adults nod off. …

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