Enough Sleep Is Essential For Kids

Ask The Expert, Dr. Robert Meny, St. Joseph Medical Center

August 31, 2009

Good and adequate amounts of sleep are essential for the growth and development of children. Sleep problems vary with age. For example, younger children may suffer from snoring and sleep apnea. Sleep terrors and sleepwalking also are common. For teens, sleepiness is commonly caused by inadequate sleep from later bedtimes combined with early start times of typical high schools.

Dr. Robert Meny, a pediatric sleep specialist at the St. Joseph Medical Center Sleep Disorders Center, explains the most common sleep problems for children, how parents can cope and when to seek professional help.

* Babies should sleep through the night by 6 months, but if they are put in their cribs already asleep, they will not learn how to fall back asleep by themselves. The key to avoiding this problem is to put the baby in the crib while still awake.

* As tonsils and adenoids increase in size, snoring and sometimes sleep apnea become a problem for young children. The child is often tired and difficult to wake in the morning and sometimes hyper and irritable. A sleep study is needed to diagnose apnea and is especially important for the child with habitual snoring - when a child snores more than three nights a week. First-graders whose sleep is disturbed by snoring and pausing in breathing have been shown to have poor academic achievement.

* Teenagers are usually tired because they don't get enough sleep because of school, social life, etc. A subgroup is those whose circadian clocks don't allow them to sleep until after midnight; these teens are extremely difficult to awaken. This circadian disorder can be treated with melatonin or special bright light. Teenagers can also have sleep apnea, especially if they are overweight. Narcolepsy is also diagnosed during the teen years or early 20s. Both of these result in a teen who is falling asleep in class and whose grades are plunging. They require a sleep consultation.

* Younger children in lower and middle school require 10 to 11 hours of sleep. Teens require nine hours but seldom achieve this. The fact that high school classes begin earlier than middle school classes makes it even more difficult for teens to get nine hours of sleep.

* If your school-age child can't settle down to sleep at a decent hour, try reading to him or her. It's best to establish a routine such that the younger child expects to go to bed at a specific time each night. Reading in bed with the child is a good pre-sleep activity.

* When a child becomes a teen, it's important to consider that the circadian clock is set forward so that the teen who could easily fall asleep by 10 p.m. now can't fall asleep until 11 p.m. or later. Forcing them into bed at 10 p.m. doesn't work.

* A couple of clues will alert parents that your child needs more (or better) sleep. Straightforward clues are: difficulty in waking the child or complaint from the teacher that your child is falling asleep/drowsy in class. Subtle clues include the child who is inattentive or hyper in school and the child whose grades are dropping.

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