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.
Whatever your kids’ ages, the best way to help them sleep longer and better is to maintain a consistent bedtime routine. That’s easier said than done, of course. But it’s worth the effort to try to stick to a schedule — a bath and teeth brushing, then one or two books read in bed, for instance — night after night (weekends too, within reason). “A few months ago, I was constantly rushing snuggle time with my son, Will, who’s 5, since I also have a 3-year-old to take care of. One night he said to me, ‘Mom, I need to cuddle more so I have the power to make it through the night in my own bed,'” says Cathy Halliwell, a mom of two in Richmond. “After that, I didn’t cheat him out of this important time, and now he does sleep through the night most of the time.”
For Pam Loeb, a mom of two in Washington, DC, playing a sound machine of ocean waves or a CD of bedtime songs — and letting her son go to sleep with a stuffed animal — does the trick.
If your child’s getting to bed too late, start moving his bedtime back by 15 to 20 minutes a night until it’s at an appropriate time, given when he needs to get up in the morning. And don’t forget to factor in how long it actually takes him to fall asleep — while infants might get there quickly, toddlers often take longer, and more than half of preschoolers need 15 minutes or more to reach the land of Nod.
If your child’s sleep problems persist, talk to your pediatrician. Parents too often don’t volunteer information about how well their children are sleeping, or express concerns about bedtime, and not every doctor will ask, assuming that if something’s wrong the parent will bring it up. Helping your child get good sleep is not only one of the best things you can do for him, but for yourself too. There’s a trickle-up effect: Behind every sleep-deprived child, there’s a bleary-eyed mom.