Your average elementary- and middle-schooler has to wake up around 6:30 to catch a bus, spends a full day in school, participates in at least one after-school activity, gets home around five and has homework to do before bed. The daily demands on teens are heightened by an even longer list of activities, increased stress and fluctuating hormone levels to boot. It’s enough to make you tired just thinking about everything on our kids’ plates.
Which is why sleep is so important for school-age kids and teens, says Margaret Richards, PhD, a director at the Pediatric Behavioral Health Department at Cleveland Clinic. Sleep gives cells a chance to regenerate, muscles to repair themselves, and the brain a chance to recalibrate hormone levels that affect mood, appetite and ability to focus. “Sleep really impacts how well kids’ brains function, from how much information they can absorb to how they perform on a test,” says Dr. Richards. For example, a teenager may have studied plenty to prepare for a test, “but if they don’t sleep well the night before, they will have a harder time accessing the information.”
Numerous studies have verified the link between sleep and many different facets of heath, including:
• Weight. A 2008 review by University of Chicago researchers found numerous studies that found a link between short sleep durations and increased risk of obesity in children and young adults.
• Academic performance. Researchers at the University of Rome found in a 2006 review of studies that the quality and quantity of sleep students get is closely related to their academic performance, and that learning ability and school performance both suffer when total sleep is reduced (and, thankfully, both rebound when the number of hours slept returns to healthy levels).
• Risky behaviors. In a 2007 study, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh analyzed the results of a questionnaire given to over 1,300 Chinese adolescents (average age 14). They found that the adolescents who slept less than eight hours a night were significantly more likely to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol than those who had healthier sleep habits.
• Emotional stability. A 2010 study found that adolescents whose parents let them go to bed at midnight or later had a 24 percent higher chance of being depressed and a 20 percent greater chance of having suicidal thoughts than those whose parents enforced a 10 o’clock bedtime.
How Much Is Enough
On average, teens need about 10 hours of sleep a night, while school-age kids need 10 to 12 hours a night. The sad truth is that very few of our kids are meeting these numbers: In a survey of 800 Kentucky high school freshmen, 48 percent reported getting eight hours or less sleep per school night. And for every hour of sleep they got per night less than eight, their chances of having an emotional or behavioral problem rose significantly. The good news was that for every hour of sleep per night they got above eight, their GPAs rose and their likelihood of having an emotional or behavioral problem dropped by 25 percent and 34 percent, respectively.
As parents, we have an enormous opportunity and responsibility to educate our kids about sleep. “We think sleep is automatic, but the truth is that we have to teach kids to sleep just like we have to teach them manners,” Dr. Richards explains. “The more we can teach them how to set the stage for ample, restful sleep when they’re younger, the more they’ll carry it with them into adulthood.”
Here are Dr. Richards’ suggestions for helping your kids get the z’s they so desperately need:
Limit access to the juice. Not the juice that comes in liquid form — we’re talking about electricity! “One of the most important things you can do to promote healthy sleep habits is keep electronic devices out of your kids’ bedrooms,” Dr. Richards says. That means TVs, computers, video games and cell phones. The problem with all these ubiquitous devices is that they are stimulating, and using them too close to bedtime disrupts the sleep cycle, making it harder to fall asleep and eating up precious sleep time, Dr. Richards says. If a computer needs to be in the bedroom for homework purposes, make sure it is powered off and not on screen saver mode.
Teach kids to plan for a reasonable bedtime. Sit down with your kids and explain to them how many hours of sleep they need each night based on their age. Then help them determine what time they ought to be going to bed according to what time they need to wake up each morning. For example, if a third-grader needs to be up at 6:30 and requires 10 to 12 hours of sleep a night, he should be going to bed no later than 8:30. Explain how many hours he has after school to get his homework done, and assist him in creating a rough schedule for his evening hours that allows enough room for schoolwork, activities, dinner, winding down and bedtime. Even if he doesn’t hit all the guidelines you establish every night, he will be learning how to organize his evenings so that he has enough time to sleep — a skill that will serve him well throughout his life.
Keep it regular. Although it may be tempting to let your kids push their bedtimes during the week and then sleep in on the weekends, if your kids have sleep problems, you aren’t necessarily doing them any favors. “When kids with sleep problems get out of their routine of waking up early, it means they have to start from scratch every Monday morning,” Dr. Richards says. Instead, encourage your child to go to bed and get up at roughly the same time every day — even on Saturdays and Sundays.
Don’t rely on naps. Although a midafternoon slumber worked wonders when your kids were toddlers, a nap now is likely to interrupt nighttime sleep. “If your child has an after-school activity and doesn’t arrive home until 5, taking a nap at that hour would make it hard for him or her to get to bed at a reasonable time,” Dr. Richards explains. Instead, set your sights on making an early bedtime attainable.
Remember that bedtime starts with dinner. Set the stage for a drama-free bedtime by having dinner at roughly the same time each night, leaving enough wiggle room in the timing to allow for some diversions from routine. “When your kids know they’ll always have dinner between 6 and 6:30, they know how much time they have for homework before dinner and how much time they have to be by themselves before bed,” Dr. Richards says.
Take time to wind down. Just like adults, kids need some time to unwind mentally and physically before bed. Help your children establish a brief, relaxing routine that they do every night — a few minutes of simple stretching, listening to mellow music, taking a bath, or drinking a glass of warm milk or cup of herbal tea all fit the bill.
Create a sleep-friendly environment. Too much light and a hot or cold room make it difficult to sleep. Hang light-blocking curtains, and make sure that the temperature is seasonally appropriate in your kids’ rooms.
Be the change. And perhaps most important, Dr. Richards says, be sure you yourself model good sleep habits — turn off the TV and the phone well before bed, do your own nightly ritual and get to bed at a decent hour. “It’s much harder for kids to accept that they can’t stay up late if you’re doing it.”
Find out more about how to keep your kids healthy from pediatrician Dr. Ellen Rome.
• Sleep isn’t just crucial for your kids. Learn how to calm your mind for better sleep!
• Prepare your room and your body for a great night of sleep.
• Soothe your way into a deep slumber with these sleep CDs at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness store.