by Dr. James Orlowski
We have all heard about the importance of adequate sleep. Sleep enables the body and brain to refresh and rejuvenate from the stresses of the day. The brain uses sleep to sort through all the myriad stimuli of the day, and decide what information needs to be stored and what can be discarded. What many people do not realize is that children do their growing during sleep. Both the brain and the body are dependent on adequate sleep for development and maturation. The hormone appropriately called Growth Hormone is secreted in high concentrations during sleep, and is responsible for the growth of the body and brain.
Sleep deprivation, interrupted sleep and shift work can all adversely affect the brain and the body, resulting in serious physiologic and psychological consequences. Think about how you feel when you are “jet-lagged.” You can’t think clearly, you are agitated, your body shakes, and you are exhausted.
Pediatricians and parents have long suspected that erratic sleep schedules affect behavior in children and adolescents. A recent study in the journal “Pediatrics” supports this suspicion. Researchers followed over 10,000 children in the UK Millennium Cohort Study and collected bedtime data as well as behavioral difficulty assessments at 3, 5 and 7 years of age. They found that 7-year-olds with irregular bedtimes had more behavioral difficulties than children who had regular bedtimes. The study also found that children with more irregularity of bedtimes over longer periods of time had greater worsening of behavioral scores. More importantly, children who changed from irregular to regular bedtimes had clear-cut improvements in behavior, and children who changed from regular to irregular bedtimes between ages 5 and 7 showed a worsening of behavior.
How much sleep do children and adolescents need? Toddlers and young children need 11-12 total hours of sleep per day. School age children from 5 to 12 years need 10-11 hours of sleep each day. Teenagers need 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep per day, but very few teens get this amount of sleep. One study found that only 15 percent of teens slept 8.5 hours per night on school nights. Circadian rhythms alter with puberty resulting in later times for falling asleep and waking. For many teens it is normal to not be able to fall asleep until 11 p.m. Unfortunately, this comes into conflict with school start times and the need to get 8.5 hours of sleep on school nights. Schools that have experimented with later school start times for high school students, have found that teens are more alert in the morning, have better moods, and better attendance.
Teens tend to have irregular sleep patterns over the week, typically staying up late and sleeping in late on the weekends. Unfortunately, this pattern wreaks havoc on their circadian biologic clock and results in poor quality sleep, difficulty falling asleep on Sunday nights, and even greater difficulty getting up on Monday mornings. The optimum approach would be for teens to maintain a similar sleep pattern on weekends to the one they have on school nights.
Sleep is important for all of us, but this is particularly true for children. Making sure your child has a good night’s sleep creates a strong foundation for mind and body development.