This article originally appeared in the July 25, 2013, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Sleep routines have long been considered a crucial part of a child’s ability to learn and focus in school, but new studies are showing that poor sleep patterns can actually disturb the body’s ability to absorb new information.
Children with either no regular bedtime or a later bedtime scored lower in reading and math than those with a regular bedtime, according to the study of more than 11,000 children in England. The study, published in the “Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health,” shows just how drastically a lack of sleep can affect growing minds.
Summer can dramatically affect sleep schedules, particularly for children. Even kids who went to sleep at a set time every night during the school year may have relaxed rules and spend more late nights in front of the television or computer. Although this is a common occurrence for kids taking full advantage of summer, many kids will find it hard to get back into the “early to bed, early to rise” routine.
Parents should consider adjusting sleep schedules one week before the beginning of the school year, said Dr. Shalini Paruthi, director of the Pediatric Sleep and Research Center at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and assistant professor at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. This will give children time to readjust to their sleep schedule and feel better rested when school starts.
“Sleep is closely related to so many aspects of a child’s behavior,” Paruthi said. “Children who do not get enough sleep can easily become irritable and moody. They may act out more and exhibit hyperactive behaviors because they are so tired. We certainly know that poor sleep can lead to poor performance in school, but it can significantly affect a child’s social life and ability to interact with others as well.”
Despite the importance of sleep, most children (and adults!) get less than the recommended amount of sleep. Ten hours of sleep each night are recommended for grade school through adolescent-aged children. During this time, children’s brains are so active and busy processing what they have learned each day.
Parents can take steps to help establish good sleep habits. Creating a nightly routine for younger children can help lay the foundation for healthy sleep in the future. If children are guided to brushing their teeth, putting on pajamas and hearing a story at the same time every night, their internal clocks will begin to associate this time with rest. Naps late in the day can make it difficult for a child to fall asleep at night, so parents should schedule their child’s naptime with this in mind.
For older children, limiting caffeine close to bedtime can help sleep come easier. Many children may fall asleep to their television or computers, but these devices can actually rob children of good quality sleep. A flickering screen might prevent sleep by delaying the production of melatonin, a natural hormone that makes people fall asleep. Turning off televisions or computers before bed is a signal that it’s time to go to sleep and rest up for the next day.
Children who still have problems sleeping after parents have worked to create a good sleep routine might have a sleep disorder. Symptoms of a sleep disorder include habitual snoring, excessive daytime sleepiness, trouble falling asleep, uncomfortable sensations in the legs at bedtime or during the night, night terrors and bed-wetting. Parents with concerns about their child’s sleep habits should talk to their pediatrician about their worries.
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is IMMUNO Professor and Chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Saint Louis University. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon website at www.cardinalglennon.com.