By Whitney Kirchoff, MD
We all know the slow, tired feeling we get in the morning after having to stay up especially late one night, but most of us are suffering similar effects from getting just slightly less sleep than we need on a daily basis. A study was done comparing a group of adults who slept less than 6 hours a night for 2 weeks and another group that skipped sleep completely for 2 nights in a row and compared their cognitive functioning? The scientists found that both groups had similar cognitive deficits and many of those studied didn’t even recognize their impairment. Sleep deficits affect children and teenagers in many different ways but here are some of the most common problems.
Poor academic performance:
There is a positive correlation between academic performance and sleep. Although it is hard to quantify the exact effect of decreasing sleep, several studies have demonstrated that students can have a drop in their grades that is solely due to inadequate sleep. Even in college where pulling an all-nighter seems to be common, this behavior can cause a drop in GPA as well as an increase in the likelihood of dropping a class altogether. For children with ADHD, inadequate sleep can cause their symptoms to worsen.
It is estimated that over 80,000 crashes per year in the US are related to sleepiness while driving. One study suggested half of those accidents occur in drivers age 16-24. Young drivers seem to be at higher risk for accidents related to sleepiness because chronic sleep insufficiency slows their reaction times.
Obesity is on the rise in the US for several reasons but a general decrease in adequate sleep seems to play a role. While there may be several factors, early studies suggest that an altered daily rhythm can cause changes in the levels of normal hormones in a way that increases appetite and decreases fat utilization both of which can lead to weight gain.
We have all seen a toddler act out after skipping a nap but older children and adolescents also have more difficulty with emotional regulation when they are not getting enough sleep. Children with depression will also have trouble sleeping but some studies have shown that children with poor sleep are more likely to develop depression. Children with depression often experience an improvement in their mood when the quality of sleep is improved.
For children it can be hard to know how much sleep your child should get as they develop. The National Sleep Foundation has recommendations for sleep duration on their website, www.sleepfoundation.org, that is categorized by age.
If you suspect that your child isn’t getting enough sleep, here are a few basic steps you can take to try to improve your child’s nighttime routine and sleep quality.
1) Keep bedtimes and waking times regular. Shifting waking and bedtimes later on the weekends can make it more difficult for your child to fall asleep quickly after going to bed.
2) Avoid high sugar or caffeinated beverages, in the afternoons and evenings.
3) Encourage physical activity during the day, try to especially engage in mostly quiet activities at least an hour before bedtime.
4) Avoid all screen time, especially during the hour before bedtime. Screens emit light in a spectrum that can make it much harder to fall asleep. If your child is used to having the TV on to sleep try playing music instead.
5) Remove all screens from the bedroom. Cell phones and tablets should be left in the kitchen or some other central place where they can charge overnight and where notifications will not wake your child up from sleep. Some responsible teenagers want to use their phones as an alarm clock and can change the settings to a sleep mode where other alerts and notifications will be silenced, but if you are just setting up rules for a new teenager it is better to buy a separate alarm and remove temptation to keep the phone nearby and use it overnight.