Sweet Dreams Make for Smarter Teens

Just an hour of sleep loss can have a huge effect on a child.

Oct. 30, 2007 — -- With after-school practices, TVs in the bedroom and an online social life that allows them to be connected 24/7, it's no wonder that 60 percent of high school age children admit to being sleepy during the school day.

Henry Elliman, 15, has a shelf full of trophies that only hint at how busy he is. "I am on the soccer team, I play tennis, I play the piano and of course schoolwork."

He's so busy, in fact, that even his mom has trouble figuring out how much sleep he gets. "I think probably he goes to sleep at 11:30 [p.m.] and wakes up at 7 [a.m.]. And I don't think that's nearly enough," Nicole Elliman said.

That's a generous estimate, according to Henry. "I try to go to sleep around 11:30 [p.m.], but after all the work, it probably winds up being 12:30 [a.m.], 1 [a.m.]"

Tired Teens

Henry's day is fairly typical for kids these days. Kids today are getting about an hour less sleep than they did 30 years ago, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman first reported in New York Magazine. And that decrease in the amount of time spent sleeping can lead to an increase in several problems.

"One hour less per night of sleep on a chronic basis can really make a difference on the way the body works," said Dr. Ana Krieger, director of the NYU Sleep Disorder Center.

"Because children's brains are a work-in-progress until the age of 21, and because much of that work is done while a child is asleep, this lost hour appears to have an exponential impact on children that it simply doesn't have on adults," Bronson and Merryman wrote in their article.

Students who experience even slight sleep deprivation can feel the effects in the classroom. For example, a University of Virginia study showed that sleep-deprived kids lost seven points on vocabulary tests. A University of Minnesota survey found that A students slept an average of 15 minutes longer than B students, who in turn slept more than C students and so on.

"Lack of sleep is definitely not desirable for children," Krieger said. "It's going to impair their ability to function well at school and even interact with people at a social level."

Another example? In Edina, Minn., they changed the high school start time from 7:25 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. in the '90s. The top SAT scores in the school jumped from 1288 to 1500 after the switch. Unlike Edina schools, however, most public high schools start before 8:15 a.m., which means your son or daughter might have to make time to sleep by cutting it out of other activities — a hard sell for many parents.

"I don't think I would give up talking to my friends or checking Facebook once in a while," Henry said. "At the same time, I do understand the importance of sleep and how that can affect my academic life as well."

Sleep Survival Guide

Just as we worry about the toll that drugs and alcohol might have on our kids, we need to consider the effect of sleep deprivation on their developing brains.

Sleep problems can impair children's IQs as much as lead exposure, New York Magazine reported. Several studies have shown that sleep-deprived kids are at higher risk for depression, obesity and cognitive delays.

Just how much sleep kids should get may surprise you:

Infants need up to 18 hours

Toddlers: 12-14 hours

5-12 years: nine-11 hours

Teens: 8.5 - 9.5 hours

Getting kids to bed on time is never easy, though. Here are some major bedtime booby traps and how to fix them.

No exercise at night: Late-night practices and games make it very hard for kids to slow down and relax — a prerequisite for a good night's rest. For little kids, watch out for pre-bedtime roughhousing, which is also too stimulating. Don't try to tire your child out, because "crashing" to sleep doesn't produce the kind of rest he/she needs.

Embrace the dark side: Light is a major "wake-up" cue, so install blackout shades in kids' rooms, and try dimming the lights before bed. Also reduce screen time before bed: If necessary, take the computer out of the bedroom when it's "lights out." The glow from the TV or computer screen may be enough to keep your teen's motor running. Remove the cell phone, too!

Eliminate caffeine from your child's diet. Too many sodas during the day or chocolate for dessert can wreak havoc at bedtime. So can certain medications. Some cold medicine contains decongestants that are stimulants, and certain prescription pain medications may also contain caffeine. Check with your pharmacist or family doctor to find out if your child's medications fall into this category.

Avoid weekend "jet lag": Many people believe that it's OK for kids to catch up on their sleep over the weekend, so we let their routine fall apart. Instead, however, they end up suffering from the equivalent of jet lag and have to reset their biological clocks Monday morning. Try to stick to their weekly bedtime routine as much as possible. Also let them take short naps during the week if necessary, but get them to bed at a reasonable hour. The goal is at least eight hours of sleep, and 10 is preferable!

Walk the walk: We can't yell at our kids to get to bed if we're burning the candle at both ends ourselves. Look at your family's calendar. Make rest and sleep a priority and model that commitment. That means being willing to say no to things. It's a tough challenge, particularly at this time of year when there are so many events coming down the road.

Read more about kids and sleep in New York Magazine's recent articles "Snooze or Lose" and "How to Get Kids to Sleep More."