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By Jennifer Wickham, L.P.C., Mayo Clinic Health System
At the end of a wonderful summer and as families are returning to school and new routines, the question of “How much sleep does my child need?” might arise if you find your child is struggling.
When infants, children, teens and their families come to my office with fears about behavior, mood and school performance issues, parents often have many theories for what is causing the problem. As parents, we tend to imagine the worst. A thorough evaluation should include an assessment of a child’s sleep habits.
Sleep deprivation often is an overlooked cause for many performance and behavioral concerns in children. In American culture, putting in long hours for work and study is highly valued and touted as essential for the success we all want our children to achieve. As we encourage and expect our children to learn more and faster, we sign them up for multiple academic and extracurricular activities in hope that they are “keeping up with the Jones’” children. Our children’s schedules have become so full that they scarcely have the time for sleep, and the pressures of success interfere with restful sleep. With a spirit of seize the day, where we fear that sleep is wasting time in a short life, we have cultivated in ourselves and our children a detrimental attitude reflected in rock star Warren Zevon’s famous quote “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
Symptoms of sleep deprivation in children may include:
• Decrease in attention span/poor mental alertness
• Decrease in ability to learn and reason
• Signs of cognitive/memory impairment/forgetting daily tasks
• Signs of depression or anxiety
• Poor school performance
• Absenteeism from school
• Tantrums/irritability/aggressive behavior
• Difficulty in waking
• Poor concentration
• Increase in appetite/sugar cravings
• Accident prone
• Hyperactivity/silliness or giddiness
• Difficulty falling asleep
Sleep, however, no matter how much we may desire it to be nonessential, is a crucial biological function. Loss of sleep is hypothesized to play a major role in the restoration and recovery of the body systems, learning, memory consolidation and healthy brain development. Sleep deprivation can lead to physical and behavioral symptoms that can be misdiagnosed as more severe mental and behavioral disorders. One can imagine that a child who has tantrums may be diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, or a child who is hyperactive and has a poor attention span might suffer from attention deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Sleep deprivation reduces the immune system’s ability to defend against colds and the flu. It can place adults at risk for chronic conditions, such as cardiovascular problems, obesity and diabetes.
The National Sleep Institute recommends these hours of sleep:
• 12 – 17 for newborns and infants
• 11 – 14 toddlers ages 1 to 2 years
• 10 – 13 preschool or 3 to 5 years
• 9 – 11 school age or 6 to 13 years
• 8 – 10 hours for teens 14 to 17 years
• 7 – 9 hours for adults
In her book “The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time,” Arianna Huffington recommends that we make sleep a priority in our homes and families. She suggests that sleep deprivation may be the most preventable of health concerns.
Tips for good sleep habits for children and families include:
• Make sleep a respected priority.
• Establish regular day time and bedtime routines for sleep.
• Keep bedrooms dark, cool and quiet (no TV, computer, cell phone).
• Use the bed only for sleep (avoid reading or homework in bed).
• Avoid caffeine in the late afternoon and evenings.
• Encourage children to sleep in their own beds, which helps them learn to fall asleep independently — parents need uninterrupted sleep too!
If your child or teen is having trouble with sleep deprivation, consulting a pediatrician or mental health professional can help you determine a path toward restoring good sleep habits and ensuring a successful future.