Children Need More Sleep, But When Do They Have Time?

Dr. Nicholas Rummo

Left to their own devices, children would go to bed around midnight and pop up at the crack of dawn just to be sure they didn’t miss anything. But when you add up homework, sports, music lessons, and early school buses, a midnight to 6 a.m. is about all the time kids have left for sleeping.  So how much snoozing is enough, and what happens if kids don’t get it?  Dr. Nicholas Rummo, MD, the head of Northern Westchester Hospital’s Center for Sleep Medicine spells out the ABZzz.

How much sleep do kids need?

A good rule of thumb is to remember that 10-year-old children should get about 10 hours a night; younger kids need more, and older kids can get by with less.  So a six-year-old needs 12, kids between 10 and14 years of age should aim for around nine hours a night.  After 14, to really function at their best, teens need eight to nine hours.

What keeps children from getting enough sleep?

Teens and younger children have a lot on their plates. But the real challenge for parents is that we live in a technological age. There are so many distractions, from television to cell phones to video games to Facebook. The other issue is that kids have to get up early for school. As a result, children try to catch up on the weekends by sleeping in. But all in all, what I’m seeing is a lot of low-grade sleep deprivation.

Can sleeping in on the weekends really help?

In the research done on sleep and performance, kids seem to do better in early in the week, and then their attention and test scores drop off later in the week. But the weekend is probably not enough for them to get caught up completely.

What’s the downside of not getting enough sleep?

For the most part, sleep-deprived preteens won’t doze off during the day. They’re more likely to become irritable and struggle with attention. To a degree, sleep deprivation mimics attention-deficit disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In fact, doctors check for sleep trouble when children are diagnosed with ADD/ADHD. In kids of all ages, lack of sleep interferes with the ability to concentrate, which of course negatively affects schoolwork. In terms of health, researchers have found in laboratory tests that poor sleep compromises immunity, which could make kids more susceptible to viruses and infections.

What can parents do to help kids get more sleep?
A regular bedtime—within a half hour or so every night—will help children’s bodies get into a rhythm of relaxing and slowing down. Have them turn off the computer, video games, and cell phones at least 30 minutes before bed time: A bright light shining right in your eyes before bed can put the nervous system on alert, making it tougher to fall asleep. Watching television from across the room isn’t the worst thing since the light isn’t shining directly into their eyes. However, watching TV from bed is linked to poor sleep habits, so avoid having a set in the bedroom. Probably the best thing to do before bed is to read and listen to calming music. There’s really truth to the fact that people sleep more soundly when they let the mind wind down.

How long before going to bed should children stop eating?
While the evidence isn’t clear on eating and sleep, I generally tell parents that kids should finish dinner at least two hours before bedtime to give their stomachs a chance to settle. Avoid sugary foods right before bed because they raise blood sugar and increase adrenaline and energy—no donuts. If kids need a snack at night, point them toward a protein-based one like nuts.

Any other tips on helping kids fall asleep faster?

In general, people sleep better in a cool room than in a warm one. Don’t allow cats or dogs on the bed—you want as few distractions as possible.

How do you define good sleep?

Give your kids a chance to get enough sleep, and they should be fine. The best way to gauge the quality of their sleep is how they behave when they’re awake—how they’re functioning at school, with siblings, and with friends. Rarely, children may suffer breathing trouble at night due to tonsils or a condition called sleep apnea—soft tissues around the throat relax and block the airways. If your child is a big snorer, have them checked out by a professional. But otherwise, if you know they’re getting to bed in time to get the sleep they need before the next day begins, they should be fine.

Dr. Nicholas Rummo is the Director of the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at Northern Westchester Hospital and Ambulatory Care Center at Chappaqua Crossing<>. Dr. Rummo is board certified in pulmonology and internal medicine by the American Board of Internal Medicine and is also certified in sleep medicine.


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