Sleep is something we all know is important for children’s brain development but often it is the one area that parents find the hardest to control. Nightly sleep disturbances, bedtime avoidance — or the inability of children of all ages to fall asleep on their own — often leaves parents sleep deprived and frustrated. Not only that but we also tend to think that our kids will sleep when they’re tired. However, when they sleep is as important as how much they get.
Dr. Katherine Sharkey, Assistant Professor at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University and sleep researcher, says that there is a sleep deprivation epidemic in our country. We push our kids to do more than ever before at the expense of sleep, which she says is a grave mistake. Knowing if your child is severely sleep deprived, being manipulative at bedtime, or is suffering from a sleep disorder is critical for your child’s overall health.
“Most childhood sleep problems aren’t sleep related but more behavioral and can be treated with behavioral measures,” she says. The amount of sleep that any person needs, adult or child, varies from person to person. And whatever your sleep number is, losing just one hour causes sleep deprivation, and the effects of that can be damaging.
Sleep deprivation causes:
• Susceptibility to illness
• The inability to understand emotional cues from others
• Decreased libido
• Poor performance at school and sports. It can cause obesity because insufficient sleep wreaks havoc with our hormones, thus causing over-eating, especially of carbohydrates.
What’s Your Sleep Number?
Understanding how much sleep your child actually needs may take some research. Dr. Dennis Rosen, Associate Medical Director of the Center of Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston’s Children’s Hospital and author of Successful Sleep Strategies for Kids, suggests that parents track their child’s sleep for a week or two, especially during vacations. Keeping a log of how much a child sleeps, including short naps in the car, helps a parent understand the number of hours a child’s brain needs for sleep.
As a general guideline:
• Newborns need 16 hours of sleep, broken up into short naps around the clock.
• A 6-month-old needs about 12 hours, broken into two 1-hour naps and 9 hours at night.
• An 18-month-old needs about 11 hours of sleep — a 1-hour nap and 9-10 hours occurring at night.
• By the age of 5, children should be getting all 11-hours of sleep at night.
• A teenager needs about 7 hours of sleep at night, while adults range from 7-8 hours. Of course, some children may function just fine on 6 hours, so knowing their ideal number is important.
Stages of Sleep
It’s important to understand the stages of sleep and why they are so critical to our bodies. “Sleep is not homogenous,” Sharkey says. “The brain cycles through many types of sleep, or stages, and all of them are essential.”
N1 Sleep (non-REM, Stage 1) is a light, transitional sleep that lasts only a few minutes and is followed by N2, in which the bulk of your time is spent sleeping. Your body then goes into the most restorative sleep, N3. This stage is the one that your body will go to first if you are severely sleep deprived because N3 is critical for brain function. The REM (rapid eye movement) stage occurs after two hours into the night and continues off and on until your last hour of sleep.
“We think one of the functions of REM is emotional regulation, so people who are disrupted during REM may be irritable,” Sharkey notes. In order for your body to experience all the necessary stages, you must get as close to the number of hours required for your age.
Social Jet Lag
We think of jet lag as a state that occurs after traveling across multiple time zones when our sleep patterns, or our circadian rhythms, are severely disrupted. According to the National Sleep Foundation, our internal circadian biological clocks regulate the timing of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day. Any disruption to our circadian clock causes our bodies to experience jet lag, which causes a general feeling of exhaustion but may also produce clumsiness, irritability, increased anxiety, difficulty concentrating, and constipation.
“Social jet lag” is a term used by sleep specialists to describe the sleep deprivation people experience due to inconsistent sleep patterns during the weekday vs. weekends. Social jet lag is the equivalent of living in two time zones — one on the weekday and another on the weekend. By the time your body adjusts mid-week, the weekend arrives, throwing your body clock off again. Social jet lag is prevalent in teens who don’t get the correct amount of sleep all week and then sleep all weekend in an effort to “catch up.”
Catching Up On Sleep
Your child pulls an all-nighter at a sleepover one night and then falls asleep on the couch the following day. Or your teenager sleeps until noon on the weekends in an attempt to catch up on sleep. Is it possible to catch up, or bank, sleep?
“While it is possible to sleep in or even take a nap to catch up on sleep lost the night before, doing that every day or every weekend is counterproductive,” Sharkey says. However, you can’t really make up for a week of lost sleep without feeling the effects of social jet lag the following week.
Too much sleep is not good, either. “The biggest mistake people who suffer from insomnia make is staying in bed longer to try to make up the sleep they lost,” Sharkey says. Depending on how much sleep your body needs, say 7 hours for an adult, your body will only benefit from those 7 hours. Anything beyond that can actually be disruptive.”
Rosen says that a nap can be great, as long as it doesn’t disturb your nighttime sleep: “Taking a nap at the wrong time of day can really desynchronize your sleep rhythms.” Naps taken too close to bedtime or those that are too long may decrease the advantages of napping. Toddlers who nap too long at daycare and have trouble getting to bed at night may need their nap eliminated. Rosen advises parents talk to their daycare providers about eliminating a child’s nap if she isn’t sleeping through the night.
Sleep and Teens
Teens who go to bed late due to after-school activities, homework, work, or online socializing and then get up very early for school will be in a constant state of sleep deprivation, or social jet lag. The problem: They just aren’t tired at night. Scientists have proven that this occurs because their body clocks shift making them more alert at night.
Evidence shows that teens would benefit from a later start time at school, but most districts are not heeding that advice. The issue of kids getting enough sleep is just as — if not more — important than physical education and healthier lunchroom meals. While many schools are entertaining the idea of pushing the school day start time ahead an hour for high school students, thereby allowing teens to get the necessary sleep they need, few actually do it.
“The data is there to support delayed start times, but the resistance is mainly because people [and districts] aren’t willing to be courageous and make that move,” Sharkey says.
When To Seek Help
If you suspect that your child is sleep deprived speak to your pediatrician, he may recommend a sleep study.
“Parents speak to pediatricians a lot less than they should,” Rosen notes.
If you notice your child is experiencing a decreased attention span, irritability, lack of impulse control or distractibility, seek help. “The behaviors that get kids a diagnosis of ADHD could possibly be sleep deprivation,” Sharkey adds. She recommends that parents also seek help if parasomnias are present. Parasomnias are sleep disturbances that include sleepwalking, night terrors [not nightmares], and sleep aggression. Also speak to your pediatrician if your child has sleep apnea or trouble breathing at night, such as snoring, or is overweight because sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain.
What Can Parents Do?
Make sleep a priority. “I tell people, if you’re curing cancer, great, stay up. If not, try to get to bed at 30 minutes earlier to start,” Sharkey says. A consistent bedtime is key, but forcing anyone to sleep when they aren’t physically ready will only leave you feeling frustrated. Parents do have control over waking a child up at the same time each day, which will help a child’s body clock and hopefully make them sleepier at night.
Help your teen manage their time and make sure they aren’t over-scheduled. Rosen suggests that parents shift the responsibility to their teen. “They need to learn how to function in the real world and they need to understand how sleep affects them in all aspects of their life, from school and sports performance to weight, depression, and anxiety,” he says.
For smaller children, a bedtime routine of a consistent bedtime, a bath, and reading books will help make it easier for your child to transition to sleep. Soft lighting in the room at night and elimination of electronics 30 minutes before bedtime is also beneficial. In the morning, open shades to allow the natural light in to help stimulate their brain. If it’s still dark out, turning on soft lighting will do the trick.