Lack of sleep can harm a child’s health

When children are young, we tuck them in at night and see them off to school in the morning. As they turn into teenagers, though, it gets harder to track how much time they actually spend asleep. Now a growing body of research shows we need to watch kids’ shuteye at every age.

Sleep’s deep effects

“The average child needs between 12 and 18 hours of sleep per day during the first year of life,” says Carol Rosen, MD, Medical Director of the Pediatric Sleep Center at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital.

All this sleep helps a baby’s brain develop. As children grow older, they need fewer hours of sleep: 10 – 12 hours a night for preschoolers, at least nine hours for school-age children and eight to nine hours for teens. But the importance of sleep does not fade.

“Sleep helps us solve problems, react quickly, form memories and learn. Inadequate sleep affects how well kids do in school. It also impacts a child’s physical well-being,” she says. “The body releases hormones during sleep that aid growth, build muscles and repair cells and tissues.”

A study in Pediatrics found that childhood sleep deficiencies may be linked to future problems, too. Among them: decreases in mental functioning that begin as early as adolescence. Increasing evidence also suggests that poor sleep contributes to major health problems, such as obesity.

Cultivate teen dreams

Researchers say children’s sleep problems should not be ignored. While parents are often involved in the sleep schedules of young children, they tend to step back in high school. Because sleep is so critical, however, you should stay involved.

First, recognize the signs that your child is not getting enough sleep. According to Dr. Rosen, two key signs are changes in mood and a slide in motivation. Sleepy teens have trouble waking up in the morning, are irritable late in the day, sleep extra long on weekends and/or doze off during the day in school.

Next, understand what is keeping your teen awake. “Many factors may play a role, and some – such as early school start times – you cannot control. But some you can,” says Dr. Rosen.

What you can do

Dr. Rosen recommends following these steps to help your child get a good night’s sleep:

  • Encourage a consistent sleeping and waking schedule, weekdays and weekends.
  • Turn off/collect/remove electronic media and games (computers, television, cell phones and text messaging) when it is near time for bed. Kids can check them back out in the morning after a peaceful night’s sleep.
  • Help your kid create a good sleep environment – a place that is quiet and dark.
  • Limit teens’ caffeine intake, especially energy drinks.

Sometimes a sleep disorder is responsible for poor rest. For example, sleep apnea causes pauses in breathing during sleep and leads to daytime tiredness. If you think a sleep disorder may be affecting your child, talk with a doctor.

Find resources online that support a good night’s sleep

The Pediatric Sleep Center offers a variety of online resources for children and parents, including age-appropriate sleeping tips and a step-by-step guide to prepare you and your child for a sleep study. Learn more at RainbowBabies.org/Sleep.

Carol Rosen

CAROL ROSEN, MD
Medical Director, Pediatric Sleep Center, UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital
Professor, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

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