Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sleep is Not Just For Babies

The pages of the Living Section often discuss the importance of sleep and for good reason -- most of us are not listening! A majority of adults are severely sleep deprived, getting an average of six hours when our bodies need eight. Statistics show that over 90 percent of teenagers are averaging three hours less sleep than they require, and the same 90 percent of parents do not think their children's reduced sleep time is a significant issue. How come everyone thinks sleep is for sissies or for babies?

Parents in the United States are obsessed with sleep -- for their babies that is. There must be hundreds of books about how to get an infant to sleep. I know I tried many of them -- including co-sleeping, the dreaded Ferber method and the Baby Whisperer, to name a few. However, our interest in monitoring their sleep dramatically drops off after that, and sleep is no longer a priority.

Why is that? Once we have finally achieved the milestone of getting our kids to sleep through the night, parents move into cruise control and don't keep track of sleep as a health priority like diet and exercise. Yet the impact of sleep deprivation is much more immediate and long standing than eating a doughnut or avoiding working out. A student who drives to school on less than seven hours of sleep is just as impaired in their reflexes as if they drank a beer and got behind the wheel.

With modern families trucking around until late in the evening with work, sports and activities, kids are often encouraged to stay up later at night to finish homework or unwind. Most parents have no idea that even an hour less of sleep can have a dramatic affect on their children's cognitive abilities the next day -- effectively losing one or two grade levels of performance. Somehow it has become culturally acceptable to be lax around bedtime routines. The permissiveness for younger children sets up a dangerous pattern of sleep deprivation as the norm.

For example, loads of parents allowing their elementary aged kids to stay up until 10 p.m. to watch prime time shows like "American Idol" or "Dancing With the Stars." At the elementary level, kids still need close to 10 hours of sleep for optimum health. If they are waking up at 6 a.m., they need to be asleep by 8 p.m. Kids start going to bed later than they should at a much younger age, and it naturally seems OK to push the bedtime out further as they grow older. If a six-year-old is going to bed at 9 p.m., by age nine, they feel entitled to go to bed at 10 p.m., and by 14 they want to stay up until midnight.

"I know my kid should get more sleep, but I give up!" A parent lamented to me by telephone. "What am I supposed to do? He has baseball practice three days a week until 8:30 p.m., and can't even think about cracking a book until 9 p.m., and the bus comes every morning at 6:45 a.m. I guess they just have to adjust to the real world early."

This is a common perspective I have found while conducting interviews with parents. Many of us have not had enough education on the health risks of sleep, and naturally feel defensive, or protective of our children. Common responses include, "My kid is fine, and just doesn't seem to need that much sleep," or a sense that learning to function as a sleep deprived individual is part of the rites of passage to make it in the world as an adult. It is pretty insane.

In the last 20 years, life of a teen or young adult has become successively more intense, with no end in sight. Most kids are addicted to their cell phones and constant social networking, pushed academically at school, physically in sports and socially in public service, until all the hours of the day are effectively squeezed into a vice-like schedule. Many kids are also falling apart with caffeine addition, depression and teen suicide on the rise.

Until I started researching the issues of sleep for an upcoming book, I had absolutely no idea what kind of price our kids are paying for the lifestyle we have created. I knew kids had a lot of pressures that affected them, but sleep? Nah, no big deal. Not anymore. I have become a sleep advocate and so can you.

Here are a few tips to get started increasing the Zzzz's in your house:
Understand the risks of sleep deprivation. In a nutshell, losing sleep once in a while is fine, but regularly is absolutely not. Risks include: obesity, depression, a loss of cognitive function, impaired sports performance and increased risk of drowsy driving accidents.

Have a family discussion. Explain to your children that the brain is very busy at night. It is logging the lectures they learned in school to help them retrieve it for tests, managing the stress and emotions of the day, and strengthening muscles to better perform at their sports. Good sleepers always get the best grades!

Set up a bedtime schedule by counting backwards from wake up time. I have a freshman in high school who can easily stay up past midnight every night texting and talking to friends. We agreed that he needs to get at least eight hours of sleep at night, even though the optimum amount is nine and a half hours. Together we counted back from the 6 a.m. wake up time so he understood that he has to be asleep by 10 p.m. This lessens some of the arguments and helps them assume responsibility.

Be a good role model. Hey, most of us adults are just as bad! Help set a good example by slowing down activities an hour before bedtime, turn off the computer and get out a good book to start unwinding. Try to get a solid eight hours yourself. Everyone will feel better and family life may be a whole lot more pleasant!

*Be sure to check out the college pages of Huff Po to see the "Freshman 8" challenge started by Arianna Huffington and Dr. Matthew Edlund for more tips on transforming our relationship with sleep.
How are you managing sleep in your house? Love to hear your stories below and feel free to click on "Become a Fan" for weekly updates.

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