For kids, back to school means back to sleep

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As we transition back to school, I thought I would discuss a subject near and dear to my heart: sleep. Summertime usually produces later nights and slower mornings. Coupled with vacations, reunions, camps and sleepovers, our children’s normal sleep routine often disappears during the summer break.

Although there is still much unknown about the exact function of sleep, we do know that it is essential for our health. Inadequate sleep is associated with the short-term effects of poor mood, lack of concentration and impaired motor skills. In school-age children it correlates with difficulty in school, increased risk of injuries, accidents, suicidal thoughts and drug and alcohol use. In addition, long-term sleep deprivation is associated with chronic medical conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Parents often wonder if their child is getting the right amount of sleep. The chart at above right provides general guidelines on sleep needs by age.

Obvious in the chart is the gradual decrease in actual hours of sleep needed from infancy through adolescence and into adulthood. It’s important to note that each age category has a range of sleep needs that varies significantly. This illustrates the fact that sleep needs are individualized — there is no “magic number” for each age. To assess your child’s sleep needs it’s important to observe how they feel or function after different amounts of sleep. When I discuss this with parents they can often indicate the amount their child needs to be at their best. Looking at your family’s individual experience is important. Is “Johnny” cranky after a night with 81⁄2 hours of sleep, or much more pleasant and interactive after he has had 10 hours?

Something not readily apparent from the chart, which focuses solely on the amount of sleep, are the differences among age groups in the timing of sleep throughout the day. For instance, most infants utilize three naps to gain the large amounts of sleep they need in 24 hours. This usually decreases to two naps after 6 months of age, when many begin to sleep through the night. Toddlers generally will transition to one nap and finally, between the age of 3 and 6 years, children usually stop napping altogether. Once again, remember that these are generalizations, and each child’s nap schedule is different.

Another sleep timing issue develops when adolescent’s circadian rhythms change to favor later bedtimes and difficulty arising early. This schedule is more feasible during the summer but can pose problems when the school year arrives. Yet, it’s important to remember that most adolescents still benefit from about nine hours of sleep. To make it to that first period class and get enough sleep this means getting to bed between 9 and 10 p.m. After a summer of late nights, this is often difficult.

Recommendations from experts to assist young children and adolescents with the transition to an earlier bedtime and to maintain appropriate amounts of sleep throughout the school year include:

» Establish a regular bedtime routine to wind down, such as a hot bath or relaxing music. Begin this an hour or more before bedtime.

» Cut out television, video games and Internet access within two hours of bedtime.

» Refrain from caffeinated beverages and foods after lunch.

» Finish eating at least two to three hours before your regular bedtime.

» Create a sleep environment that is dark, quiet, comfortable and cool.

» Try to use the bedroom only for sleep by avoiding television, computer use or reading in bed.

» Exercise regularly.

» Maintain consistent sleep and wake schedules throughout the week, including weekends.

» Make a commitment to getting the amount of sleep you and your children need to function at your best.

These recommendations are by no means exclusive, but try to establish ideal conditions by removing obstacles that can inhibit your child’s sleep. As the last point indicates, it’s important to first acknowledge the value of sleep for you and your children and then plan how to optimize conditions for proper sleep.

Fortunately, our daylight hours are getting shorter, which will help with earlier school-year bedtimes. Working on this transition gradually, over a few weeks before the start of school, will make it less abrupt and hopefully less challenging.

Sweet dreams!

Mike Tacheny is a family medicine practitioner at Family Medical Center. He can be reached at 525-6650 or michaelta@yvfwc.org.

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