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Getting Enough Sleep for School
As Ben Franklin said, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” This recommendation is as important today as it was centuries ago, and as vital for children as for adults.

To get children back to school means shifting them from the summer schedule to the school schedule. During the summer, your children may have stayed up late at night, slept late in the morning and been able to relax or play during the day. But to prepare for school, they’ll need to get to bed earlier at night, wake up early and be ready to concentrate during the long school days.

How much sleep is needed?
During sleep, the body and brain have a chance to rest, restore energy and repair and grow body and brain tissues. Sleep is especially important for children because it’s critical for their physical and mental development.

The amount of sleep needed changes with age. In general, younger children need the most sleep. Experts advise the following amount of sleep at these ages:

Newborns (1-2 months): 10.5 to 18 hours

Infants (3-11 months): 14 to15 hours, including two or more ½-to 2-hour naps

Toddlers (1-3 years): 12 to14 hours, including one 1- to 3-hour nap

Preschoolers (3-5 years): 11 to13 hours, including one 1- to 3-hour nap

School-age children (5-12 years): 10 to 11 hours

Teenagers (11-17 years): 8.5 to 9.25 hours

Adults (18 years and older): 7 to 9 hours

Sleep requirements vary from individual to individual. Some people need less sleep and some need more. It’s important for parents to understand the amount of sleep that children typically need at each age, and also understand the individual sleep needs of their own children.

What are the effects of too little sleep?
Experts say that most children and adults do not get enough sleep each night, and many suffer from the psychological and physical effects sleep deprivation, including:
  • Difficulty paying attention, learning new information and performing at school and work
  • Increased mood swings, fatigue, irritability, impulsivity and behavior problems, difficulties in relationships and depression
  • Increased rates of injuries
  • Decreased immunity and ability to fight infections
  • Increased rates of overweight, diabetes and heart disease

There is also a strong connection between children’s sleep and their parents’ sleep and health. A recent study from Australia, published in the May 2007 issue of Pediatrics, found that the parents of children with sleep problems were themselves more likely to suffer from physical and mental health problems. The authors concluded that improving children’s sleep could improve both the children’s and their parents’ mental and physical health.

How can we help children get enough sleep?
The keys to helping children get enough sleep are getting them to bed earlier and helping them sleep better through the night. You should start preparing for bedtime at dinnertime! Here are some tips:
  • Avoid caffeine in the evening.
    For dinner, give your children milk, which has natural chemicals that cause sleepiness. Avoid sodas that have caffeine, which causes wakefulness.
  • Set a regular bedtime that allows enough time for sleep.
    Based on the amount of sleep your child needs, calculate back from the time he has to get up in the morning to set an appropriate time. For example, if you have a 5-year-old who needs 11 hours of sleep and has to wake up at 7 a.m., he should fall asleep by 8 p.m.
  • Choose calm activities between dinner and bedtime.
    Activities that are too stimulating—such as wrestling and playing video games—are better to do during the daytime and on the weekends. On weekday evenings, try taking a walk, reading together, playing quiet games or cards, doing art projects or playing music before bedtime.
  • Have a consistent bedtime routine that starts 30 minutes before your child needs to fall asleep.
    A bedtime routine will help your child know what’s coming next so he feels more secure and comfortable falling asleep. For example, you might give him a bath, read a book, cuddle with a teddy bear and give him a sip of water before putting him to sleep.
  • Limit television, movies and video/computer games:
    • Avoid violent games and shows.
      Games and shows that involve bad guys, chasing and shooting may contribute to children’s fears and nightmares.
    • Avoid television, movies and video/computer games at night.
      Although children may appear to sit calmly in front of the screen, these activities are over-stimulating. They can cause difficulties falling asleep and nightmares that disturb your child’s sleep.
    • Keep the television and computer out of the bedroom.
      A screen in the bedroom is a constant reminder of the excitement of video/computer games as well as television shows and movies. This can make it difficult to fall asleep.

When to talk with your child’s doctor
If you have any concerns about your child’s sleep or his daytime behavior, be sure to talk about them with your child’s doctor. Separation anxiety, fears, night terrors, nightmares, sleep talking, sleepwalking and school anxiety can contribute to sleep problems.

Children may also have other conditions that disturb their sleep, such as sleep-disordered breathing or obstructive sleep apnea—loud snoring and pauses in breathing caused by enlarged adenoids and tonsils—restless leg syndrome or bed-wetting. Medical evaluation and treatment for these may be helpful.

For more information, visit the website for the National Sleep Foundation, www.sleepfoundation.org, and the site for children’s sleep, www.sleepforkids.org.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician