It’s amazing how Summer has flown by, with families like mine now either preparing for or already back to school. Of course, this blog is devoted to children who don’t or shouldn’t have to worry about such things, dubious products notwithstanding…
With so much always-on, ever-accessible information zooming around, it’s easy to forget the simple things. Like sleep. Though increasingly out of vogue (totally 1.0), sleep has been around for eons and used to be considered important and fun. In fact, we used to sleep more than any other activity, and didn’t feel like we were missing out on anything, e.g. celebrity Twitter feeds. With only 24 hours in a day, though, the spike in screen time has required sacrifices of other things, notably going outside, talking in person, writing with a pencil, and sleep. And this is unfortunate, since it is increasingly clear that sleep is more than just a time to snore, drool, and have weird dreams. It’s when “behind the scenes” maintenance happens, critical for proper immune function, growth, mental health, memory, and learning. Note Happy Baby Pose below:
Recent statistics provoke insomnia. In 1981, not long after my bookish family caved in and bought an Atari, US children ages 1-5 averaged 11.5-13.5 hrs per day total sleep time, i.e. what they need. By 2005, this had dropped to 9.5-11.5 hours. Teens had an even greater drop, to 7 hours (a minimum of 9-11 is recommended). Parents are sleepy, too, losing 1-2 hours over this span, thus the spike in Starbucks. The major culprit is not grande caffeine, though, but the rise in electronic media, esp in bedrooms. And the problem is getting worse, as portable insomnia devices – e.g. iPads, Smartphones, Nintendo DS – invade our sleeping quarters.
This phenomenon is ironic and unfortunate, since sleep is a critical factor in common parental concerns: obesity and weight issues, attention problems, mood, learning, and going to bed and staying there. Long-term, poor sleep quality is associated with mental health problems, poor school performance, and somatic complaints, i.e. “my tummy hurts…” Unfortunately, such sleep problems tend to persist, with long-term developmental repercussions.
Parents of little ones, often exquisitely preoccupied with sleep, take note: viewing by infants/toddlers is associated with irregular nap- and bedtimes, potentially interfering with a critical window for developing healthy sleep behavior. Thus, keeping those first few years screen-free pays huge dividends.
When we pediatricians are faced with such issues, improving sleep is almost always one of our recommendations. OK, so, how? Achieving a healthy sleep schedule means eliminating obstacles to quality sleep and encouraging sleepy things, such as:
- Reducing screen time (or eliminating under 3)
- Eliminating caffeine, Red Bull-branded formula, and other stimulants
- Encouraging activities that make children tired, such as drawing like 20 pictures, making up games, and running around outside and getting dirty and sweaty.
- Embracing snoozy bedtime rituals such as mellow play and sharing stories via real books.
- Removing all screens from bedrooms, including portable devices
The latter point can not be overemphasized – another strike against bedroom media. Despite prevailing mythology that bedroom TV – even “quiet” shows – helps children fall asleep, video screens signal the brain that there’s something going on and it’s time to be awake. Their bright, flashing lights also potently inhibit melatonin, the brain’s master sleep chemical evolved to sense day versus nighttime, requiring darkness.
If a child over 3 must watch something, it is critical to set limits in timing and content. A 2011 study of kids age 3-5 in the journal Pediatrics found that those watching violent (including video games) content at any time or any e-media after 7PM (i.e. bedtime) had significantly more sleep problems, including nightmares, nighttime awakening/migration, sleep resistance, and poor sleep quality, with health implications cited above. Thus, after dinner (another media-free zone), it’s time to wind down and embrace consistent, sleepy, unplugged rituals of your own design.
Back to school fun fact: Another study found that a single night of restricted sleep in 10-14 year-olds impaired cognitive ability, including abstract thinking and creativity, an important consideration for starting the semester right.
In closing, always remember that despite all of the cool technologies we invent and think will be fun for kids, they still need – and tend to do better with old-school stuff. And sleep is one of the old-schoolest of all, better for health and learning than all of the smart baby apps and DVDs combined – truly worth dreaming about.
So grab your blanket and go to bed!