The New Epidemic: Sleep-Deprived Kids


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America's elementary schools are full of students too tired to learn because of lost sleep, according to a study from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. In fact, many kids are experiencing "jet lag" symptoms, says Denise Amschler, professor of physiology and health science at Ball State.

"The study found that the majority of youngsters regularly experience sleep loss and feel sleepy during the day at least two to four times weekly. Nearly half admitted to having trouble waking up in the morning on school days," Amschler says. "Elementary-school-aged children require an average of 10 to 11 hours of sleep each night, and most aren't getting it."

Common sleep problems for children

The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) agrees with Amschler's recommendation and says that about 69 percent of children ages 10 and younger regularly experience some type of sleep problem. The most common are:

Insomnia – Defined as difficulty falling asleep, difficulty remaining asleep and/or early morning awakenings. Insomnia can be short-term due to stress, pain, or a medical or psychiatric condition. Treating underlying conditions, developing good sleep practices and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule can help.

Sleepwalking – Usually occurs an hour or two after falling asleep and may last from five to 20 minutes. Since sleep deprivation often contributes to sleepwalking, moving bedtime earlier can help.

Sleep terrors – Happen early in the night and can be frightening to parents. A child may scream out and appear distressed, although he is not awake or aware during a sleep terror. Not getting enough sleep, having an irregular sleep schedule, stress or sleeping in a new environment may make sleep terrors more likely. Increasing sleep time may help.

Snoring – Occurs when there is a partial blockage in the airway that causes a noise due to a vibration of the back of the throat. Snoring can be caused by nasal congestion, enlarged adenoids, or tonsils that block the airway. Some children who snore may have sleep apnea (see below).

Nightmares – Frightening dreams that awaken a child. They usually happen in the later part of the night and can result from a scary event, stress or change in a child's routine. Using a nightlight or a security object often helps.

Restless legs syndrome – A movement disorder that includes uncomfortable and unpleasant feelings — often described as crawly or tingly — in the legs, causing an overwhelming urge to move. These feelings make it difficult to fall asleep. RLS can be treated with changes in bedtime routines and with medications. Talk with your child's doctor if you suspect RLS.

Sleep Apnea: A potentially serious condition

Sleep apnea is characterized by loud snoring and disturbed sleep caused by interrupted breathing patterns. In children, the leading cause is enlarged tonsils and adenoids, and surgical removal is the first line of treatment. If untreated, sleep apnea may contribute to serious health problems in later life, including hypertension, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Wearing a special mask to bed helps kids with sleep apnea breathe and sleep better, according to a study at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore, Md. The breathing mask, which delivers a gentle, steady flow of air, significantly improves breathing and blood-oxygen levels when worn regularly, researchers reported in the journal Pediatrics. Parents also reported that their children had improved daytime alertness after PAP therapy.

TV exposure and sleep

Watching TV for more than two hours per day can lead to sleep problems in kids, according to a study associated with the Healthy Steps for Young Children program.

Forty-one percent of the children studied had a television in their bedroom, and this was associated with sleep problems, researchers say. In particular, watching TV close to bedtime has been linked to bedtime resistance, difficulty falling asleep, anxiety concerning sleep and sleeping fewer hours, according to the NSF.

The bedtime challenge

Grade-school children have increased demands on their time from homework, sports, and other extracurricular and social activities. In addition to the lure of TV, many kids at this age become interested in texting friends and surfing the Web. Some also increase their caffeine consumption. All of this can lead to sleep problems, says the NSF. To help kids get the sleep they need:

Teach them about healthy sleep habits. Emphasize the need for a regular and consistent sleep schedule and bedtime routine.

Make your child's bedroom conducive to sleep. It should be dark, cool and quiet. Keep TV and computers out of the bedroom.

Make sure your child avoids caffeine, and discuss that it's not just coffee that contains caffeine. Consuming chocolate, tea, energy drinks and some soft drinks can lead to overly caffeinated kids at bedtime.

When to call the doctor

The NSF suggests talking with your doctor if your child has any of the following sleep problems:

* Problems breathing or noisy breathing.
* Snoring, especially if it is loud.
* Unusual nighttime awakenings.
* Difficulty falling asleep and maintaining sleep, especially if you see daytime sleepiness and/or behavioral problems.

Kathy Sena is a freelance journalist specializing in parenting and health issues. Her work has appeared in USA Today, Woman's Day, Newsweek and other publications.

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