Now that summer is over and your kids are back in school, it's time to remember that getting enough sleep at night will help your child of any age thrive during the day. It's important to assess whether or not your child is getting enough sleep. While young children need more hours of sleep than teenagers, don't forget that adolescents do need more sleep than adults. Here are some tips on identifying whether or not your child is sleep-deprived and what you can do to help them get the sleep they need.
Signs of Sleep Deprivation in Kids
Children show signs of sleepiness that may differ from adults. For example, they might have trouble concentrating in school, experience memory problems, and act more hyper, rather than appear sleepy. Since these same symptoms can be mistaken for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), it's important to figure out what's going on with your child's behaviors and to make sure that your child is getting enough sleep at night. Children may also be irritable or more moody after a poor night's sleep. While adults may see the relationship between sleeping poorly and their mood, children may not be able to verbalize this as well. In addition, research has shown that children who aren't getting enough sleep are at risk for weight gain, which can lead to other medical problems.
Teenagers who are sleep-deprived may fall asleep during class or complain of difficulty concentrating and focusing while at school. Lack of sleep can also affect their mood, and they may show signs of depression and irritability. During adolescence, it's common to experience a shift in the circadian rhythm, meaning that they don't get sleepy until later at night and then have trouble waking up on time for school. This pattern is simply reinforced if they wake up later in the mornings on the weekends. Instead, keeping the same weekday-weekend sleep schedule can help to improve this pattern. Other ways to help your teen maintain a better sleep routine include wearing sunglasses in the afternoon and evening hours, in order to help with the natural production of melatonin in the brain. On the flip side, exposure to bright light in the morning hours is important to help jump start the activating centers of the brain.
If your child snores or you've seen them stop breathing in their sleep, it's important that you seek consultation with a board certified sleep specialist to rule out sleep apnea. Children who have sleep apnea may show decreased academic performance, more behavioral and mood problems and an increased risk for other serious medical illnesses.
Tips to Help the Entire Family Get a Better Night's Sleep
• Turn off the television, computer, cell phone, e-reader, hand-held gaming device, and any other gadgets that can stimulate your brain at night. Do this at least one hour before bedtime.
• Create a relaxing bedtime routine. For younger children, this may mean taking a bath, reading a few books, spending quiet time with the family, and then hugs and kisses before bed. Too much physical activity within a couple of hours of bedtime can make falling asleep harder, so stick to calmer activities that signal the brain and body that it's time for sleep. For older kids, teens, and adults, try doing a few stretches, taking a hot shower, reading a book (with a small reading lamp, not bright lights), practicing deep breathing, or whatever you find relaxing and peaceful.
• Include your child in making decisions about what to do before bedtime. If you emphasize the importance of sleep and why our bodies need it, there will be less arguments at bedtime. For younger children, getting ready for bed together can help lessen the anxiety they may feel about "missing out" on other activities. By putting on your pajamas and brushing your teeth at your child's bedtime, you can reemphasize that sleep is important at all stages of life.
• Try keeping the same bedtime and wake time every day, even on the weekends. Erratic sleep schedules can make it harder to get the amount of sleep needed.
• No caffeine for at least 12 hours before bedtime. Although this may not be an issue for younger children, many teenagers drink sodas, iced coffee beverages, and other caffeinated beverages throughout the day to fight off the sleepiness. But this only contributes to making it harder to fall asleep at night. Don't forget that chocolate has caffeine, as do many types of teas, so limiting or restricting the amount of caffeine consumed in the afternoons and evening hours can make a difference.
• Younger children may like a transitional object, like a special blanket or stuffed animal, to make them feel more secure at night. These types of objects can serve as a comfort to your child and also signal that it's time for bed.
• Although it can be difficult, setting limits at bedtime is important. For example, if your teenager wants to watch one more television show that's occurring at their bedtime or spend 20 more minutes chatting with friends online, emphasize how important his/her sleep is to feeling rested and good the next day. Similarly, younger children are notorious for requesting one more book, a glass of water, or one more hug and kiss before bedtime. Although it's tempting to give in to these requests, simply keep in mind that you are setting the stage for future nights. By creating a calming, consistent bedtime routine, you can transition to sleep in a positive, healthy way.
To sum up, healthy sleep habits start at a young age, so it's important to look for the signs of sleep deprivation in your child and take action to remedy the situation if needed.
Stephanie A. Silberman, Ph.D., FAASM, is a Licensed Psychologist who is a Fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. She is active in professional organizations and legislative activities affecting psychology and sleep disorders. She is a consultant for various sleep laboratories and maintains a private practice in the Fort Lauderdale area. She has appeared on television news and in national magazines regarding sleep-related issues. Her recent book, The Insomnia Workbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Getting the Sleep You Need, is not only a self-help guide for people with insomnia, but also a useful reference tool for health-care professionals. Read her blog on Red Room or visit her website at http://www.sleeppsychology.com to learn more.