Sleep deprivation. Droopy eyes at breakfast, the irresistible urge to roll over and snuggle back to sleep, mentally shaving items, compromising your day’s tasks, to make up for those additional delicious minutes of dream time. We’ve all experienced a sluggish morning, but for growing children and adolescents, it’s more than an annoyance to get out of bed without enough sleep, it’s detrimental to their health.
With school just around the corner, it’s important your family focus on the benefits a healthy night’s sleep can provide. Help your kids sleep on a schedule. Here’s why.
In the transitional years of late childhood and adolescence, your child’s brain benefits from plentiful NREM sleep—the deep sleep waves that cycle throughout the night as we sleep. While young children and babies need maximum hours of REM sleep to create neural pathways in their brain, NREM refines and individualizes the brain neurons developed in early life.
During mid to late childhood, the growing brain transitions from taking in a large amount of REM sleep, tipping the scales toward NREM as it reaches adolescence. Deep sleep increases as the brain’s neural network connectivity decreases, shifting from growing connections to shedding them, giving way to a more mature brain. NREM sleep is a key component for the transition into early adulthood.
NREM coincides with the stage in an adolescent’s life where cognitive skills, reason, and critical thinking have more demand. The growing brain accepts new challenges in relation to the increase in NREM. The adolescent brain is typically less rational than an adults’ and has poorer decision-making skills. This can help explain the awkward transitions we sometimes see in adolescence. Developing a rational brain takes deep sleep. And lots of it.
As kids shift into adolescence their circadian rhythms, or internal clocks, naturally shift forward, making it normal and healthy for a teenager to crave sleep much later in to the morning. This may explain why your teenager is energized in the evening and difficult to budge at sunrise. It’s not laziness, lack of discipline, or teenage angst, it’s biological! Adequate sleep is needed to give their brains the healthy NREM sleep it needs.
Sleep is a powerful memory aid. It primes both the young brain for learning, preparing it to make new memories, as well as effectively “saves” those memories to the brain hard drive, the hippocampus, after learning.
Sleep prior to an important day of learning helps to create a fresh place to drop in new memories—or facts—during the day. The more sleep an individual gets before heavy learning, the more the brain is restored, allowing it more “space” for incoming information. Sound sleep after learning helps to protect and properly “file and save” new information in the brain. You effectively transfer yesterday’s memories into long-term memory, while clearing space to receive new “short-term” information the following day. This process is disrupted when we deprive ourselves of sleep.
Knowing how important sleep is to a successful future, here are a few ways to improve your child’s sleep in preparation for a new year of learning:
The groggy feeling you get before bed—or throughout the day for the sleep deprived—is an accumulation of adenosine, a chemical that signals it’s time to sleep. Caffeine is a popular stimulant many adults use to repress this chemical build up, but no amount can eliminate it. Only sleep will adequately flush away adenosine, leaving you refreshed to begin the process again the next morning.
The half-life of caffeine is about six hours. This means, six hours after consuming caffeine, 50 percent remains in your system. Although caffeine may be a helpful pick-me-up, it cannot replace sleep and is not recommended for children. While it doesn’t pose any serious health risks, it has no nutritional value. If your child consumes caffeine, be sure to cut off intake early in the day to avoid disrupting their ability to fall asleep.
It’s hard to avoid the allure of lit screens, games, social media, and the like. Kids of every age are drawn to the screen and parents are left with the especially tough challenge of regulating addictive use.
A popular book on sleep relays a staggering statistic, “using an iPad—an electronic tablet enriched with blue LED light—for two hours prior to bed blocks the otherwise rising levels of melatonin [in participating subjects] by a significant 23 percent.” LED light impacts our ability to maintain a natural sleep rhythm. Its damaging effect on a young, developing brain’s sleep pattern is detrimental to development.
Shut off screens as early as possible in the evening. If your kids need entertainment before bed, opt for paper books or games that reduce light exposure.
The National Sleep Foundation offers guidance on how much sleep the average school-aged child and teenager should get each night:
School-aged Children (6-13 years)
Recommended: 9-11 hours: (No less than 7 hours; no more than 12 hours)
Teenagers (14-17 years)
Recommended: 8-10 hours (No less than 7 hours; no more than 11 hours)
If you suspect your child might have an underlying sleep disorder or other medical condition, consider seeing a sleep specialist. But for most school-aged children and adolescents, getting their sleep schedule in shape for the school year can be managed with some careful shifts in environment and bedtime habits.
A bedtime ritual may seem like a way to coax your babies or toddlers into sleep each night, but the truth is, everyone can benefit from a routine to help you wind down and signal sleep is coming. If your kids have stayed up late during the summer, a bedtime adjustment period may be necessary. Implement your new routine a few weeks before their morning alarm clock starts ringing.
Enforcing new bed times and creating cues the brain can associate with sleep will help to prepare your child to rise early. A winddown routine is a great sleep hygiene habit to start with your children, even at a young age. Hot baths, relaxing down time, and exercise at least three hours prior to bedtime are all helpful gateways into dreamland.
As you wrap up summer, take the final weeks to focus on your child’s sleep environment. A cool, dark environment with little disruption will help your children get the sleep they need to be their best. Even better, eliminate gadgets or anything else that might distract them from sleep.
A dark room is best for sleep, but it’s also important for natural daylight to creep in each morning to regulate daily sleep patterns. If possible, waking up with the sun naturally and getting early morning sun exposure will help promote regular sleep cycles.
In today’s busy and electronic driven world, it’s more important than ever to pay attention to your child’s sleep schedule. As parents, we often focus on things we should take away from our teens and children. When it comes to sleep, we get to flip the switch and focus on creative ideas to add more hours of shut eye. What a refreshing change. Tonight, sleep easy knowing each restful moment stimulates success.
What bedtime rituals work best for you and your family? Share in the comments below.