Cincinnati Family Magazine

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April 18, 2024

Sleep – It Works Like a Dream


My friend Nancy was lamenting for months that her 2-year-old son, Noah, was not himself. His tantrums had become pronounced, he didn’t seem happy, and he had bouts in which he ignored her completely. “He is zoning out on me,” she would say, confused.

Assuming the “terrible 2s” had hit or thinking that Noah might have early symptoms of a more serious condition such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Nancy consulted her pediatrician for advice. The answer surprised her.

“He told me to put Noah to bed an hour earlier each night,” she explains. “The improvement was immediate! It worked like a dream.”

I decided to try the same remedy after a particularly difficult spell with my 11-year-old son, Sean. His normal bubbly attitude about school had been doused in self-deprecation and bursts of anger. These uncharacteristic reactions lasted nearly a month. One look at his over-booked schedule was all it took to see that Sam was in dire need of sleep.

Together, we made changes: to bed a little earlier when possible and elimination of unnecessary activities. Sam was grateful to give up some of his commitments and welcomed the down time to read and sleep. Within days, he was back to his chatty, happy self.

No Rest for the Weary

It may seem too good to be true, but experts agree that making simple adjustments to sleep schedules can help reduce anger, stress, injuries and even obesity in children – as well as adults! And the benefits include a better attitude, increased self-esteem and good health.

We live in a society that does not always set a good sleep example for children. “Having it all” for many means sacrificing sleep. Children watch their parents give up morning rest for workouts or housework, head to the office early and work late, stress extracurricular activities and stay up late to watch TV. These actions show our children that we do not value rest.

In addition, our children head off to school early in the morning, attend after-school programs, do homework through the dinner hour, play sports in the evening and often get to bed as an afterthought to the day’s commitments.

Trying to “do it all” is taking a toll on our kids. Innately, children know they need more sleep. The 2004 “Sleep in America” poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation looked at the sleep habits of infants to 10-year-olds and found that, on average, they weren’t even meeting the low end of the range recommended by experts for sleep during a 24-hour period.

All of this lack of sleep causes trouble. A study in Pediatrics, the publication of the American Academy of Pediatrics, finds a correlation between sleep deprivation and accidents among children age 14 and younger. In the study, a group of researchers at the Children’s Emergency Center in Udine, Italy, studied more than 300 children seeking emergency room treatment. When the researchers compared the sleep patterns of those children on the days when they were injured to days when they were not, a relationship between the two surfaced. The study found that sleeping less than 10 hours a day increased a child’s injury risk by 86 percent.

A Nightmare for Teens

One of the interesting finding for sleep researchers involves teenagers. While many parents complain that their teens are staying up too long and sleeping in too late, research finds that adolescents have little control over these urges.

During late puberty, a teen’s hormone levels adjust the body’s sleep rhythm to a different schedule than society dictates. The hormones keep the body alert late into the night – much later than a 10 p.m. bedtime. By the same token, to get enough sleep, a teen is not ready to get up until late in the morning.

These physical changes – coupled with a teen’s early school hours, after-school work responsibilities, social commitments and late-night TV – create a dangerous combination for an already emotional period of life. Anger, irritability and mood swings can become pronounced, adding to a stressful time for parents, too.

Researchers who study sleep patterns are concerned that a lack of understanding about adolescent sleep habits puts teens at increased risk for accidents, endangers the immune system and enhances the risk of illness – including depression. It can also make it difficult for students to learn in school.

When teens go to sleep at a late hour, getting to an early morning class is like attending school in the middle of the night. To remedy this, some sleep experts are calling for schools to change the early start hours of high school so that students are awake and alert for class. Advocates suggest starting the conversation by discussing the topic at Parent Teacher Association or school committee meetings to put the idea on the table.

Bedtime Routines

The good news for all parents is that a little change can go a long way in helping to foster a healthy sleep environment for children of all ages:

  • Know how much sleep you and your children need each night. Observe moodiness, injuries and attitudes in your children over a week or two, and see how they relate to sleep. The idea is to have everyone in your family wake up refreshed, not tired.
  • Provide a healthy bedtime routine. This is especially important for younger children. It helps to teach them how to prepare for a good night’s sleep. You may want to post the evening’s routine on the refrigerator with pictures if your child is not ready to read. A picture of the potty, followed by pictures of soap, a toothbrush, pajamas, a book and a kiss is easy for a little one to understand and helps him to develop a sense of responsibility and independence.
  • Encourage relaxing activities before bed. Reading or talking about the next day’s plans are much better for preparing to sleep than playing a video game or basketball.
  • Establish a regular bedtime and waking schedule. Keep your routine over the weekends and during school vacations if possible.
  • Create a sleep-friendly environment. Avoid flickering TV or computer screens, use light-blocking blinds at the windows and provide a quiet room for sleep.
  • Watch for changing sleep patterns throughout your child’s day. You might observe an unusually stressful or sleepy hour or two for you child each afternoon at 3 p.m., for example. This is not a good time to take driver’s education or to participate in a dangerous sport. You might instead suggest a nap or take a walk to help pump up some energy.
  • Set a time limit on caffeine intake. Ban cola and other caffeinated beverages after a certain time.
  • Take an honest look at the demands placed on your child’s schedule. Is it possible that your child might be taking on more than he can handle? A reduction in one sport or program may provide enough down time to keep your child well-rested.
  • Talk to your pediatrician if your child suffers from continued sleepiness. There are cases in which children have difficulty staying awake during the day despite getting enough sleep at night. Your child may be referred to a sleep expert to test for treatable disorders such as sleep apnea, narcolepsy or periodic limb movement disorder.
  • Be a good role model. Know your own sleep needs and try to keep them. By making your sleep a priority for good health, your children can learn from your example.

Just adding a few of these suggestions to your family’s sleep routine can aid in improving mental and physical health. Rest easier knowing that sweet dreams can lead to sweet smiles in the morning.

Mary Jo Kurtz is a mother and freelance writer.

sleep recommendations:

Each child’s sleep needs vary, but in general, the average sleep needs of children fall into this range:
Infants (3 – 11 mos.): 14 – 15 hours
Toddlers (12 – 35 mos.): 12 – 14 hours
Preschoolers (3 – 5 years old): 11 – 13 hours
School-aged (6 – 12 years old): 10 – 11 hours

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