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Only Half of U.S. Children Get Enough Sleep: Why That’s a Serious Problem

Our children aren’t getting enough sleep.

Children who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to not finish their homework as well as care less about their school performance. Getty Images

  • A new study concludes that almost half of children in the United States don’t get the recommended 9 hours of sleep.

  • Experts say a lack of sleep can affect schoolwork and produce long-term health effects, such as obesity.

  • Experts have a list of tips for parents on how to improve their child’s sleep habits. Among them are no electronic devices between dinner and breakfast.

Early school start times, screen related distractions, and other external pressures have contributed to 52 percent of American children ages 6 to 17 getting less than the 9 hours per night recommended by pediatricians.

That lack of Zzz’s has effects for a child’s development, according to a new study being presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 2019 National Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans.

The study hasn’t been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal.

What researchers found was that compared to their sleep deprived peers, the 48 percent of kids who did sleep enough had a 44 percent higher likelihood of demonstrating curiosity in learning new information and skills.

They were also 33 percent more likely to complete all their homework and 28 percent more likely to care about doing well in school, the researchers said.

Risk factors for poor sleep include living below the federal poverty line, lack of caregiver education on the importance of adequate sleep, increased digital media use, adverse home-life situations, and mental health issues.

Hoi See Tsao, MD, a pediatrician in Boston, Massachusetts, and a study co-author, called this chronic sleep loss “a serious public health problem among children.”

The health effects of too little sleep

The dangers of not getting enough sleep go beyond mere academic performance, experts say.

For one thing, lack of sleep combined with greater exposure to germs at school makes it more likely a young person will get sick.

“Your physical health can begin to take a beating when you skimp on the nightly rest you need,” Sujay Kansagra, MD, the director of Duke University’s pediatric neurology sleep medicine program in North Carolina, told Healthline.

Developmentally, a lack of sleep is also problematic.

“Young people, especially teens, are still developing their frontal lobe and decision making skills, but when sleep deprivation is exacerbated, your frontal lobe is most impaired,” Kansagra said.

“This can cause mental function to be reduced similar to that of a drunk person, where decision making processes are delayed and impaired, attention is shortened, and memory functioning is decreased,” he said.

The effects can be more than memory lapses, too.

“Sleep deprived kids have more behavioral problems, more academic problems, more health problems, more risk-taking behaviors, and more anxiety and mood related problems,” Lynelle Schneeberg, PsyD, an assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine and director of the behavioral sleep program at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, told Healthline.

In addition, she said, “Sleep deprived kids have more sleep terrors, nightmares, sleepwalking, and bedwetting.”

In addition, too little sleep can increase a child’s risk for health problems, such as obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, irregular heartbeat, and diabetes, says Jessica Brown, DO, MPH, a board certified expert in pediatric sleep medicine at Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Health in Louisiana.

But perhaps most concerning is the link between too little sleep and teen self-harm and suicide risk, according to Susan Malone, PhD, MSN, a senior research scientist at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing in New York.

She highlights a 2018 research letter in the journal JAMA PediatricsTrusted Source warning of the risks of less than 8 hours of sleep on teens’ self-harm risk.

“The strongest link was between mood and self-harm, such that high school students sleeping less than 6 hours were more than three times as likely to report considering suicide, making a suicide attempt plan, or attempting suicide than high school students sleeping 8 hours or more,” Malone told Healthline. “Moreover, high school students sleeping less than 6 hours were more than four times as likely to report an attempted suicide.”

The social media problem

While we know that screen time can disrupt kids’ sleep, social media may pose unique risks because of its influence on the reward centers of the brain, Kansagra said.

“We live in an online world dominated by social media through which we not only consume content but can create it with a touch of a button,” he said.

“When you are watching or creating content, your brain is secreting chemicals like norepinephrine and dopamine,” Kansagra said. “These chemicals stimulate the ‘wake centers’ of your brain, making it harder to fall asleep.”

Social media also signals the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline and the stress hormone, cortisol, when a person checks social media, says Beatrice Tauber Prior, PsyD, a clinical psychologist, author, speaker, and owner of Harborside Wellbeing in North Carolina.

“The last thing you want your child to experience is a surge in adrenaline and cortisol when they are trying to fall asleep,” she told Healthline.

How to help kids sleep better

If you want to help your children sleep better, start at home.

Parents and caregivers play an outsized role in ensuring children and teens understand the importance of sleep and receive an appropriate amount of it, experts agree.

“Parents can teach their kids to fall asleep independently, can set good limits at bedtime, and can manage electronics with a house rules contract,” said Schneeberg, who’s also the author of the book “Become Your Child’s Sleep Coach: The Bedtime Doctor’s 5-Step Guide, Ages 3-10.”

Some potential rules include agreeing to turn off devices an hour before bedtime, leaving those devices off until after breakfast, leaving devices outside bedrooms overnight, and leaving devices in non-blue light “night mode” from dinner until breakfast.

Terry Cralle, a registered nurse and sleep expert with the nonprofit research organization the Better Sleep Council, concurs.

Here are the steps she suggests for helping kids sleep better:

  • Caregivers should talk about the importance and benefits of sufficient sleep early and often with young children. Have conversations about the value of sleep during the day, not at nighttime or while trying to get a tired child to bed.

  • Never use going to bed early as a punishment or staying up late as a reward. Don’t use the bedroom for timeouts.

  • Optimize the sleep environment for your child and teen. A dark, quiet, and comfortable bedroom with a comfortable mattress and pillows are just as important for children as they are for adults.

  • Going to bed should always be cast in a positive light. Instead of telling children that they “have to go to bed,” say instead, “You get to go to bed.”

  • Kids should have a media curfew, and parents should try and keep screens out of a child’s bedroom.


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