It’s time we open our eyes and take a critical look at how sleep starved our children are and how it’s hurting them. Children are averaging an hour less sleep compared to 30 years go. And they're definitely getting less than what sleep experts recommend. It’s a serious problem. It’s even been called a public health crisis -- an epidemic.
Some of you might be thinking: "Sheesh, it’s only an hour of sleep. Is it that bad? Yes, people, it's bad. Very, very bad.
Why Sleep Is So Important
Sleep, like eating, is critical to our children’s health and development.
We all understand why kids should eat fruits and vegetables and get enough iron, yet few parents know what the heck happens physiologically when the body is sleeping and why it's so critical.
It is only (or mostly) while our bodies sleep that these critical functions can occur:
• the day’s learning is cemented by the growth and strengthening of neural connections;
• the memories of the day’s activities are stored into long-term memories during a process called memory consolidation;
• the body does its restorative healing work (ex. tissue repair, protein synthesis);
• growth hormone is released;
• and changes to the structure and organization of the brain, known as neuroplasticity, occur.
Well-fed and well-rested children are at the top of their game. They are energetic, alert, happy and ready to learn. Children lacking nourishment or sleep are under-performing.
Consequences of Sleep Deprivation
Have you noticed your child is moody or irritable? I think we can all recognize a grumpy, tired kid who has missed a nap. But did you know that missed sleep also mimics the lack of focus and distractibility in ADHD? The same goes for children with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Research has shown startling impacts on academic performance when children are lacking sleep, as well. It seems the prefrontal cortex is especially impacted by tiredness, and this is exactly the part of the brain that is required for complex thought, reasoning and much of classroom learning.
In fact, recent sleep research indicates a one hour difference in sleep results in a performance gap of two full grades! In other words, a tired sixth grade pupil performs like he is in grade 4.
The research also shows that you don’t need to miss a full hour of sleep to see a measurable impact. The brain is so sensitive to its need for sleep that even 15 minute of lost sleep makes a measureable difference in performance.
Children who are tired respond to that fatigue by producing more cortisol. Cortisol then stimulates a carbohydrate craving because carbs are the only food substance that the brain can use for energy. It's like the brain is saying: "I am starving here, but I have to go to work. Get me a bagel so I can function."
This type of eating can lead to obesity. The increase in childhood obesity correlates more closely to the decrease in our nation's average nightly sleep than it does to the explosion of screen access.
Obesity means more issues with nighttime breathing, or sleep apnea as it’s known. Sleep apnea creates sleep disturbances and that kicks the coritisol production into play and now we are eating carbs and getting fat. It is estimated that 70 per cent of obesity-related cases of sleep apnea go undiagnosed.
This cortisol response is just a part of a more complex system called the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA is a system in the brain that is involved in behavioural issues your child might be experiencing with anger, explosiveness, anxiety, depression and more. Trust me when I say, don’t be fooling around with the functioning of the HPA axis!
So Why Are Kids Getting Less Sleep?
Not all kids are missing out on sleep due to an actual sleep disorder. There are also socio-cultural reasons at play:
• more extra curricular activities (who can sleep after a late night hockey game?)
• more homework (even when kids get off the ice, they still have homework that past generations didn’t)
• busy families
• Older siblings (maybe the 12 year old can handle a late hockey practice, but we take his seven year old sister to the arena with us)
• Screens (kids have access to screens in their bedrooms so they socialize and entertain into the evening hours without proper supervision)
• Lack of proper sleep training so children are up during the night multiple times calling out for their parents to re-settle them, or they are co-sleeping with their parents, which often disturbs their sleep
How To Help Kids Get A Proper Night's Sleep
Hopefully now you are all keen on becoming advocates for proper sleep. Here are some tips you can use for proper sleep hygiene:
1. Find out exactly how much sleep your child needs by age.
2. Establish a wind-down routine one hour before lights out so the brain begins to prepare for sleep. Melatonin, the sleep hormone will be released by the brain as it starts to recognize the pattern: bath, jammies, stories.
3. Turn off the TV, screens and phones as they all shine a form of blue light that mimics daylight and thus suppresses melatonin production.
4. The brain likes darkness and cool temperatures so drop the thermostat and add a blanket if needed. Install black-out curtains if light is coming in the windows.
5. White-noise machines can be soothing and cancel out background noises from the house and street that can otherwise keep kids up.
6. Teenagers need less sleep and their brains shift and re-set to fall asleep later and hence they need to rise later. Waking a teen at 7 am is akin to waking an adult up in the middle of the night. Have compassion as they fight their own biology to fit into a world that wants them at school early.
7. Move away from co-sleeping as the benefits don’t out weight the risks in terms of incidences of SIDS and increased sleep deprivation.
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