Oh, to be the Bildens. Their three kids go to bed at a decent hour around 9 and sleep through the night. No little ones tiptoeing out of the bedroom for a third glass of water or fifth bathroom trip.
“The embarrassing part is, I go to sleep shortly after them. I raise the white flag and crawl into bed. I get up early, by 5,” says Kristin Bilden of Durham, N.C., whose three children range in age from 6 to 13.
Healthy parent sleep habits like Bilden’s just might be one of the keys to why her kids are well rested, while technology may be kids’ biggest sleep robber, says Nancy Collop, president-elect of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM).
“Cellphones, Facebook, iPods and video games are keeping kids up later at night. And the literature is suggesting it’s getting worse, not better,” Collop says.
With the start of a new school year on the horizon, many parents are concerned about getting kids back on track sleepwise.
Ideally, families should start good sleep “hygiene” in babyhood, but if nocturnal routines have been less than stellar, it’s never too late to help your little ones get better Z’s, Collop says.
Sleep affects performance
At the AASM annual meeting in June, dozens of studies were presented indicating school performance is dropping because of student sleepiness, Collop says.
“There’s more and more information showing insufficient sleep affects cognitive ability, and emotional and physical well-being,” says Dennis Rosen, associate director of the Sleep Disorders Program at Children’s Hospital Boston.
About 25% of children overall experience some type of sleep problem, ranging from difficulty falling asleep and night wakings to more serious primary sleep disorders. More than a third of elementary-school-aged kids and 40% of adolescents have significant sleep complaints, according to AASM.
While more than 5% of children are sleep-deprived resulting from more serious sleep disorders, the majority of under-rested kids are simply going to bed too late and getting up too early to rack up the hours they need to concentrate in school, feel emotionally stable, even play sports well, says Collop, the mom of two teenagers.
“There’s more and more information showing insufficient sleep affects cognitive ability, and emotional and physical well-being,” Rosen says.
Teens appear to be at high risk for sleep deprivation, according to a National Sleep Foundation poll that reported only one in five adolescents get an optimal nine hours of sleep on school nights. Over the course of a week, high school seniors miss nearly 12 hours of needed sleep.
Risks stretch beyond the classroom, Rosen says. In a recent study in The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 15% of students who reported that they had had at least one car crash considered sleepiness the main cause.
There are behavioral strategies you can use to get kids on track, say sleep experts.
“Get the technology out of the bedroom. No TV, no cellphone, no computer. You really want it to be the place where they just sleep,” Collop says.
Light exposure from screens suppresses the release of melatonin, a hormone linked to circadian rhythms that’s released when your brain registers darkness.
Anything lit up is stimulating and delays your ability to fall asleep, Collop says.
Develop a pre-sleep routine with kids the younger, the better, says Alon Avidan, associate director of the Sleep Disorders Center at UCLA. It could include a bath, a book, a light snack (avoid chocolate and caffeinated drinks at least eight hours before bed). “They begin to associate those behaviors with sleep,” Avidan says.
After her 11-year-old daughter eats dinner, wraps up homework and takes a shower, Charolottesville, Va., mom Lisa Climer says Addie likes to sit in the living room, eat some crackers and read a book.
“It’s been that way since she learned to read on her own,” says Climer, who allows the occasional e-mail check, but not if it’s nearing Addie’s 9 to 9:30 into-bed time frame. Bedtime has slipped this summer, as late as 10:30 or 11, and Climer plans to get stricter as the start of school nears.
Try a subtle transition
Transitioning back to school sleep timetables doesn’t have to be painful, though, Avidan says. Don’t just start setting bedtime earlier and earlier, get everybody up a little earlier every day, too, he advises.
“Wake kids up half an hour earlier each morning until they’re on school time schedule,” Avidan says. “In the morning, expose your kids to sunlight don’t let them crawl out of bed and into a dark den for another hour. Get up, have breakfast.”
No need to be Stalinistic about sleep, though, Avidan says. Even at the Bildens’ house, special occasions turn into late nights. This past Fourth of July everyone stayed up well past bedtime, says Kristin.
“Let kids be kids,” Avidan says.
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