School starts in a few days, and children will naturally balk at going to bed when it’s still light outside. We grown-ups know that lack of sleep means trouble getting up the next morning. Now, thanks to numerous studies, we know sleep is even more important than we’d suspected.
Sleep deprivation has been linked to a lack of cognitive development and impulse control. New evidence also suggests a correlation with a host of problems, including memory issues, obesity, car accidents, diabetes, binge eating, hypertension, depression and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Any of those would be bad enough for adults, but the effect on children is both measurable and profound. Remember, until the age of 21, brains are works in progress. Brains accomplish much of that work during sleep. In fact, a Tel Aviv study found that one lost hour of sleep over just three days was enough to cause sixth-graders to perform like fourth-graders on tests.
Closer to home, Minnesota and Rhode Island researchers surveyed teens about their sleep habits and grades. They found that A-students averaged about 15 more minutes sleep each night than B-students. Grades correlated with amount of sleep, with the difference between As and Ds being about half an hour a night.
Today, children from elementary through high school get about an hour less sleep a night than they did 30 years ago. Experts say that school-age children require about 10-11 hours a night, while teens need 8-9. About half of teens get less than seven hours on weeknights. No wonder 25 percent report falling asleep in class at least once a week.
Still, this is 2013. Families live demanding, over-scheduled and hyper-connected lives. How can parents help their children get enough sleep?
First, allow ample time to adjust to the new schedule. Start introducing routines before school starts. Work backward from your morning schedule to set appropriate bedtimes. If you need everyone dressed, fed and out of the house by 7:45 a.m., let that determine how early children go to bed.
If your child struggles waking up in the morning, back up her bedtime a few minutes each night until she awakens more easily. Earlier bedtimes are not punishment, but a natural consequence of grumpy mornings.
Shut down kids’ electronics (computer, tablet, phone, television) at least 30 minutes before bedtime to allow the brain time to cycle down for sleep. Turn off all mobile devices and plug them in to chargers somewhere outside the bedroom.
Finally, evening routines should consist of simple, slowed-down, calming rituals. Perhaps a bath or shower, a book, a quiet chat and a snuggle at tuck-in time.
Longer, sweeter dreams could mean happier, healthier children. Unconvinced? Maybe you should sleep on it.
Lorie Schaefer is retired, mostly.