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Lights Out!

It's no secret that kids need plenty of sleep. For a preschooler (3 to 5 years old), that's as much as 11 to 13 hours, including naps; for a toddler (1 to 3), 12 to 14 hours; for a baby under 1, 14 to 15 hours.

Few get it. In fact, half the parents surveyed by the National Sleep Foundation reported that their kids need more  -- and better-quality  -- shut-eye. And more than two-thirds of the children had trouble sleeping at least a few times a week.

The problem goes beyond groggy heads and crankiness. Sleep deprivation can undermine your child's health, often in surprising ways. It may compromise their immune system, making them more vulnerable to colds and other illnesses. Inadequate or poor-quality sleep can also affect mood, behavior, and learning. Some concerns:

In a recent study, 6- and 7-year-olds who slept eight to nine hours a night were nearly twice as likely to be overweight as those who logged ten hours or more (the right amount for their age). Those who had fewer than eight hours a night were nearly three times as likely to be heavy. One link: the hormone leptin, which boosts metabolism and helps the body feel sated after eating. It's secreted mostly during sleep. "Children are sleeping less than they did ten years ago," says Judith Owens, M.D., director of the pediatric sleep disorders clinic at Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence, "and this, along with other lifestyle factors, may partially account for the rise in obesity among kids."

Every mom knows that when her kid starts falling and bumping into things, it's bedtime. And studies do show that sleep-deprived kids are more accident-prone the day after a sleepless night. Research has even found that these children may have double the risk of injury compared to those who sleep more restfully.

Sleep bolsters memory, creativity, and problem-solving skills. Kids who are chronically low on zzz's, studies show, often exhibit short attention spans, and may be impulsive, easily distracted, or hyperactive. A child who's sleep-deprived may not be alert enough to process and retain information and, consequently, could risk falling behind in his schoolwork.

Sleep deprivation can make kids more emotionally sensitive and less able to roll with the punches. In school, their behavior may be misinterpreted as a mental health issue, such as ADHD, according to Marsha Rappley, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics and human development at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Stacey Colino's last feature was "Mommy, It Hurts!" in the March issue.