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Ask an Expert: Kids and sleep

As we approach Daylight Savings Times on Sunday, March 10, EdNews Parent gets the low-down on kids and sleep from Lisa Meltzer, PhD, a sleep specialist at National Jewish Health.

How much sleep do kids really need?

It’s different at every age, and it’s different within ages. While there is a recommended range of “normal,” some children may need more or less sleep than other children. (Look up your child’s age here). Younger children may need 10 to 12 hours; while adolescents need eight to 9.5 hours. Some 25 to 40 percent of kids around the world have some kind of sleep problem in their childhood.

How can I tell if my child is (or is not) getting enough sleep?

Over the summer or school vacations, when your children are able to sleep as much as they want, how much do they sleep? If they are sleeping more than they normally do during the school year, it is a sign they are behind on sleep. Also, you might notice mood changes. When I ask parents what their child is like following a night of poor sleep, they’ll notice the child is irritable, hyper, moody, quick to anger. You know what the signs are in your child.

It’s really hard to wake up my child for school. Is this a concern?

Yes. If your child is easily roused within 15 minutes that is nothing to worry about. If the wake-up requires water sprayed on your child or numerous wake-up attempts it probably means your child is sleep-deprived. Often, children don’t get enough sleep during the week. There should not be a difference in the sleep amount on the weekend or weekday. If your child is sleeping more than two hours later than normal on weekends then that’s a sign he or she is not getting enough sleep during the week.

My child’s teacher has caught him dozing off in school. Is this normal?

Most school-aged children (6-12 years) should not be sleeping in school. No matter how bored your child is, if they’re getting enough sleep they will not fall asleep at school and they should not need to nap after school. Adolescents, on the other hand, may need and benefit from a 45-minute nap in the afternoon.

Why is sleep so important?

Recent studies show that even going to bed one hour later than normal for four or five nights in a row causes kids to drop one grade level in performance on tasks of reaction time, attention and short-term memory. Another study found that healthy, typically developing kids showed signs of ADHD in terms of not being able to sit still and emotional liability following just five nights of going to bed one hour later than usual.

My child drinks cola drinks with caffeine. Could this affect her sleep?

Kids are drinking coffee and caffeine. One study found that 75 percent of 5-12 year old children had daily caffeine, with 5-7 year olds having approximately 52 miligrams per day (more than a can of cola), while 8-12 year old were having 109 miligrams per day (the same as an 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee). Caffeinated products are readily available, including gum, drinks, candy bars and even caffeinated maple syrup. Children should not need caffeine, and caffeine consumption could definitely play a role in affecting sleep.

My child participates in a lot of sports and after-school activities that sometimes spill into the evening. It’s hard for her to sleep.

When kids have a number of activities after school, then get home in the evening and still have homework, this schedule in and of itself interferes with sleep. Also, it takes kids time to wind down in the evening, so it is not realistic to expect that following an 8 p.m. basketball game or dance rehearsal they will be able to just come home and fall asleep. In families that are over-programmed, sleep is not the priority.

Why does my 15-year-old want to sleep all weekend? And it’s so hard to wake her for school.

When children go through puberty, the timing of their melatonin, a hormone that controls the internal clock, moves later by about two hours. This makes it very difficult for adolescents to fall asleep early and wake early for school. In turn, adolescents then become sleep deprived during the school week and so they try to compensate by oversleeping on weekends.

If teens need more sleep why do high schools start so early?

There are a number of factors that go into school start times, including busing, meals and sports. The tradition of early high school start times has resulted in asking adolescents to wake up when teens are at their peak of physiological sleepiness. In other words, we are asking adolescents to be awake when their brain is basically asleep. Some schools are now shifting schedules to later start times. The research clearly shows a number of benefits to later school start times for adolescents, including higher graduation rates, better attendance, and less tardiness, as well as improved health and mood.

My child wakes up in the middle of the night. Can kids have insomnia?

Yes. And usually it’s for the same reason as adult insomnia: stress. Kids have always had stress related to academics and peers. However, over the past few years there seems to be an increase in fears related to local, national and world events, such as shootings at schools or movie theaters, or even someone breaking into their home. Kids are getting more and more stressed out. When kids lie in bed for a long time worrying and not sleeping, this can result in insomnia.

At what point should we seek professional help for sleep problems?

When it’s really affecting daytime functioning, or mood. Lack of sleep can induce depressive or anxious symptom. Grades can drop. They’re not interested in participating in activities. Parents know when their kids aren’t their kids anymore.

My son likes to play on his computer before bed. Should he have technology in his room?

No. It used to be just TVs we worried about. Research has shown that kids with a TV in their bedroom go to bed an average of 30 minutes later than children without TVs in their rooms. By the end of a school week, that child is 2.5 hours behind in sleep. Now we have laptops, smart phones and tablets. Preliminary research is showing that light from an iPad is enough to suppress melatonin, which can delay sleep onset. You should shut down technology at least 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. If you must look at a screen, dim the display brightness or wear sunglasses – literally. Most important, perhaps? Parents must model good behavior around technology use and sleep. Have a central charging station in the home where all phones, tablets and laptops go at night.

How do I continue to ensure good sleep habits in my family?

Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day (including weekends!). Have technology-free bedrooms that are cool, dark and comfortable; limit caffeine after lunch or altogether. A snack before bed is also good so the child is not hungry. Have a consistent bedtime routine that is calming and technology free, with the same activities in the same order. Everyone – kids, teens and adults – need to have this wind down time. While our technology has an on-off switch, our brains do not.

What about exercise? Won’t that help my child sleep?

Yes, if it is done during the day. Don’t encourage high levels of activity right before bedtime.

My child snores. Is this normal?

This can be a sign of sleep apnea and should be checked out. The most common cause is big tonsils and/or adenoids. Obesity can also be a cause, especially for teens. If your child has sleep apnea they may be sleeping 12 hours a night but waking four or five times every hour. It’s not a very refreshing sleep and may result in daytime sleepiness or increased behavior problems during the day.

My son complains of a tingling feeling in his legs at night. What is that?

If it occurs only at night, and is made better by moving or stretching or rubbing the legs, it could be due to restless legs syndrome (RLS). For kids, RLS can make it difficult for a child to fall asleep and stay asleep, but is also very treatable.

What about sleep terrors or sleepwalking?

These are benign issues, often run in families, and are triggered by insufficient or poor quality sleep. If you’ve got a sleepwalker, the most important thing is to keep the child safe. Make sure windows don’t open all the way. Do not try to wake your child. That will simply prolong the event. Guide him or her back to bed. You might attach a bell to his or her bedroom door so you can hear it open.

So, Daylight Savings time is upon us. How should we prepare?

Daylight Savings is like traveling across one time zone. It takes two to three days for the body to recover and catch up. I would suggest going to bed 15 minutes earlier for each of the four nights before the time change.

Where can I get more information?

Try the National Sleep Foundation.

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