How many times have you heard the phrase “there just isn’t enough time in the day”? Maybe we should be saying there just isn’t enough time in the night. Researchers are finding that more and more Americans are sleep deprived. As a matter of fact, most researchers are calling it an epidemic.
Some people will boast about their ability to function with little sleep but the reality is the frontal lobe of the brain requires adequate sleep to function properly. So what’s the big deal? Sleep deprivation can result in memory loss, reduced mental capacity, inability to problem solve, depression, mood swings, foggy brain, impaired immune system, chronic diseases such as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity. More and more vehicular crashes and physical accidents are being attributed to lack of sleep. The list goes on.
The leading cause of sleep loss is stress. Sleep deprivation is no longer just an adult condition, our children suffer as well.
The National Sleep Foundation suggests that school-age children (5-10 years) need 10-11 hours of sleep daily, teens (10-17 years) need 8.5-9.5 hours, and adults need 7-9 hours.
It is significantly important to have adequate sleep during the years when critical brain development occurs, up to 25 years of age. However, according to the National Sleep Foundation only 8% of American teenagers get adequate sleep. A recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that as much as two-thirds of high school students get less than seven hours of sleep nightly.
Why? Let’s look at some common causes for sleeplessness.
- Electronic use at night. (computer, phone, texting, video games, TV)
- Exhaustion (there is a difference between being tired and being exhausted)
- Forced late bed-time (purposely staying awake past tiredness)
- Lack of nightly routine (varied bed-times and night activities)
- Physical exertion late at night
- Poor diet/nutrition
- Alcohol/marijuana use (prevents REM sleep when sleeping)
Is your child getting enough sleep? Is he or she having a very difficult time waking in the morning? Overly moody? Signs of depression? Staying up often to do homework? Inability to concentrate? Lack of motivation? Late afternoon fatigue or napping? Have electronics in their bedroom including a cell phone? Have late night sports games or practices? Cravings for sugar or gaining weight? Drinking caffeinated beverages?
If some of these sound familiar, then chances are they are not getting enough sleep and it’s time to assess sleeping habits and their lifestyle. This does not come without challenges. The hormone that is responsible for causing feelings of sleepiness (melatonin) is produced later in teens than in children and adults. This means that teens often have trouble falling asleep early and tend to stay up later at night. It may make it easy to stay up and do homework but getting up for school the next morning becomes extremely difficult and trying to absorb information with inadequate sleep is hard to achieve. Let's not forget to mention that fighting with your children about going to bed can be exhausting for parents. Some school districts have recognized the sleep needs in adolescents and have gone to later start times but if this is not an option for your child there are ways to help improve sleep patterns.
1) Regular bed times help to train the body to fall asleep more easily.
2) Remove electronics from the bedroom, including cell phones. Surfing the web, texting, playing games with lighted backgrounds stimulates the brain. Darkness is essential in the production of melatonin.
3) Reading can help some people become sleepy but the reading light should come from behind the head so the light is not in front of the eyes.
4) Avoid caffeine. There are a lot of highly caffeinated drinks being marketed to youth. Caffeine is a drug and is addicting.
5) Avoid napping during the day.
6) Assess how much time is needed for homework and start earlier. If your child has more than 3 hours of homework a night you may want to talk with the teacher, there may be other reasons why there is so much homework, i.e. not understanding the material, not making use of work time during class, not working efficiently. Your teacher is a good resource for strategies.
7) There are some herbal (non-caffeinated) teas that help to aid sleepiness such as chamomile, peppermint, passionflower and others.
8) Getting kids to talk about what may be worrying or upsetting them can help to relieve anxiety or fear.
9) Talk to your child’s doctor about other strategies such as taking a melatonin supplement.
10) If you suspect your child is using alcohol or drugs, seek professional advise.
11) Catching up on sleep on the weekend is NOT a strategy. A Harvard research study says you cannot recover sleep debt by sleeping longer a couple days a week.
Your child does not think they are sleep deprived. You know this if you have ever had a child come home from a sleep over — irritable, over emotional mess — oh but they’re not tired. Keep in mind that the youthful brain has an underdeveloped frontal lobe which is associated with reasoning, planning, parts of speech, movement, emotions and problem solving. Kids may not always make the best decision for their health. Their decisions can be impulsive and emotional. They may have difficulty understanding their own limitations. They think they are invincible.
This is when parental wisdom steps in. Teaching our children positive life habits and giving them the tools to make good choices will benefit them long into adulthood.