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This article originally appeared in the Aug. 11, 2011, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Many parents are busy shopping for school supplies as the newest school year lurks just around the corner, but one of the most important tools for a good education can’t be found in a department store—a solid night’s sleep.

Good sleep is critical to helping kids be alert and comprehend their lessons at school. However, many kids stay up late and sleep in during the summer, making the adjustment back to the classroom a challenging one.

Adjusting sleep schedules one week before the beginning of the school year is a good idea, says Dr. Shalini Paruthi, director of the Pediatric Sleep and Research Center at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and an assistant professor at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

“It’s very important for parents to set and enforce a regular schedule for their children,” Paruthi says. “Children function best if they go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning, even on Saturdays and Sundays. A new study published this year shows that when parents set the bedtimes for teenagers, these children obtained more sleep and experienced improved daytime alertness with less fatigue compared to children allowed to choose their own bedtime.”

Most adults require about eight hours of sleep per night. For grade school through adolescent-aged children, the recommendation is 10 hours of sleep nightly. That is because kids’ brains are so active, processing and retaining new experiences and knowledge every day.

“Children learn so much new information daily,” Paruthi says. “Sleep is the time children comprehend and store all this new information into memories.”

Insufficient sleep can have an impact on every aspect of a child’s life: mood, behavior, appetite, growth and certainly performance in school. Without enough sleep, a child lacks the ability to focus and learn all the information needed to succeed.

Unfortunately, most kids—and their parents—get less than the recommended amount of sleep.

For younger children, a nightly routine can help establish good sleep patterns. Children who are used to putting on their pajamas, brushing their teeth and having a story read to them at the same time each night will begin to set their internal clock to start feeling sleepy around the same time.

There are outside factors that parents can eliminate to help their children get a good night’s sleep. Children who take naps late in the day may find it difficult to fall asleep at night. Likewise, children who don’t limit caffeine are likely to have problems sleeping. Parents should not allow children to fall asleep to the television: A flickering light can prevent sleep onset by delaying the production of melatonin, the natural normal hormone that makes people feel sleepy. The flickering light from TV may also wake up the child during the night.

Most parents who are patient and work to establish a sleep routine will find that their child adjusts to the school-year sleep routine. However, children can have sleep disorders just like adults do.

Children who have trouble sleeping after parents have adjusted their routine may have a sleep disorder. Some symptoms that might alert parents to a sleep disorder include habitual snoring, excessive daytime sleepiness, difficulty falling asleep at night, pain or uncomfortable sensations in the legs at bedtime or during the night, multiple awakenings throughout the night and night-time behaviors such as sleep-walking, night terrors and bed-wetting. Parents who are concerned about their child’s sleep habits should talk to their child’s physician.

Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. 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.

8/11/2011