the power of sleep why sleep is important a boy in bed

The Power of Sleep: Why sleep is important and how to make sure your children get enough

Your children may fight bedtime as strenuously as they can, but here’s the real truth from the mouth of babes: Sixty percent of middle schoolers and 70 percent of high schoolers admit that they do not get adequate sleep.

And that’s just awful, according to Dr. Luis Ortiz, a physician at the Sleep Center of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital who researches narcolepsy and other sleep disorders and how they affect children’s health. Lack of sleep affects children’s developing brains. Without adequate sleep, “they can’t function well, they don’t have focus, and they can’t perform well,” he says.

For children with mood disorders, lack of sleep becomes a painful cycle, with insomnia exacerbating the symptoms of anxiety, depression and hyperactivity and the mood disorders themselves making it difficult to sleep.

To learn about how much sleep is enough and how to ensure your child gets enough, read on for tips from Dr. Ortiz. (Hint: Adults can apply some of these sleep routine and hygiene habits to their own lives too!)

How Much Sleep Should My Child Get?

Here’s the rule: A 10-year-old child needs 10 hours of sleep each night. Younger children need more, and teens should aim for nine hours each night. Dr. Ortiz suggests these bedtimes:

  • Elementary school ages: 7:30-9 p.m.
  • Middle school ages: 8:30-10 p.m.
  • Teens: 9-11 p.m.

Set a Bedtime Routine

As July draws to a close, it’s a good time to start prepping good sleep habits for the upcoming school year. Begin your routine two weeks before the first day of school to get the best results.

During the day, your child should:

  • Get plenty of natural light first thing in the morning.
  • Get plenty of physical exercise during the day (but not within two hours of bedtime).
  • Play and do homework and other stimulating activities away from their bed so that bed remains associated with sleep.
  • Avoid naps (if the child is school-age).

Before Bedtime:

  • Dim the lights at home four hours prior to bedtime—it’s a sign for the body to start producing melatonin.
  • Keep the temperatures cool—68-72 degrees is ideal for sleep.
  • Turn off electronics an hour before bedtime.
  • Keep televisions, tablets, charging phones and stimulating toys away from the bedroom.
  • Reduce noise, such as televisions in another room or siblings of a different age in the same room.

At Bedtime:

  • Follow a consistent bedtime routine every day, even if the caregiver changes.
  • Incorporate a warm bath before changing into pajamas.
  • Read one or two short, soothing stories, but avoid any with disturbing or frightening themes.
  • Be aware of changes in routine that might affect a child’s ability to fall asleep, such as knowledge of a house guest arriving, or a parent departing on a trip shortly.

the power of sleep why sleep is important

Sleep during the Teen Years

Dr. Ortiz explains that tweens and teens experience a shift in internal clocks that causes them wake up later and stay awake later—and this does not change until they are in their mid-20s.

It’s a tough age for bedtime battles, especially when you’re competing with the prospect of binge-watching a Netflix show or hanging out with friends on social media. Some teens may protest that they napped in the afternoon so that they could stay up late studying, or that their after-school job means they have to catch up on sleep on the weekends.

While “sleep banking” on weekends can have a positive impact, it is not as good as just getting a good night of sleep every night. And daytime naps are not as deep or healing either. “Fractured sleep schedules can lead to sleep disorders later in life,” says Dr. Ortiz.

With older teens, lack of sleep can be particularly dangerous if they get behind the wheel. Drowsy driving kills about 6,400 people annually in the United States, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy driving also results in about 100,000 crashes, more than 71,000 injuries and $12.5 million in damages each year.

So although your kid might be past the age of tucking in bed, it’s just as important to get them to go to sleep at a reasonable time. “You don’t want to be coercive,” says Dr. Ortiz. “You want to negotiate about when that phone is going to be turned off. But when lights are out, that should be it. And the parent has to let the kid know why they are doing this.”

A Note about Melatonin …

While melatonin is marketed as a supplement in the United States, Dr. Ortiz warns that it is considered a medication in many parts of the world and should be treated as one. A pediatrician should always guide the use and dosage of melatonin. And while low-dose melatonin can be a sleep aid, it should not be a permanent solution to sleep problems.

The Power of Light

Sometimes, the best things in life are free! Sunlight—and adequate exposure to it—can be incredibly effective in regulating sleep. “Seeing plenty of natural light, especially first thing in the morning, can diminish effects of electronic light exposure at night,” says Dr. Ortiz. “If your child has problems sleeping at a certain time, exposure to light in the first 30 minutes can shift the time of sleep to earlier the next night.”

When to see a Sleep Doctor

Common ailments that children can suffer from include nightmares, night terrors and bed wetting. Most of these are normal in young children and relatively harmless as long as they are outgrown.

However, some symptoms do indicate a visit to a sleep specialist:

  • Your child is excessively tired during the day. Narcolepsy (when they frequently fall asleep) often occurs between 8 and 14 years of age, but often goes undiagnosed for up to 10 years.
  • Your child shows behavioral problems and/or hyperactivity. Parents often come to Dr. Ortiz to be evaluated for sleep problems before proceeding with a diagnosis of ADHD.
  • Your child has difficulty falling asleep at night. Behavioral or medical therapy can help with this.
  • Mood disorders are exacerbated.
  • Your child shows signs of sleep apnea, including excessive snoring and or short periods of not breathing during sleep.

Regardless of the condition, it’s crucial to get treatment. Undiagnosed narcolepsy, for example, has been linked to poorer college outcomes and lower income, even when the studies have been adjusted for parents’ income and educational level.

Says Dr. Ortiz: “Early diagnosis and treatment can save a child much heartache and frustration.”

Originally published in the July 2024 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.