By Meg Lundstrom
An astounding seven out of 10 children aren't getting enough z's. Here, five top children's sleep-stealers, plus smart strategies that ensure sound slumber for them — and for you.
You tuck your kids into bed with a kiss and a prayer...that they'll drift off quickly and sleep through the night (so you can too!). Sadly, those z's don't always come easy: Nearly 70 percent of kids under age 10 experience some type of sleep problem, according to the National Sleep Foundation. And although sleep needs naturally decrease by about 15 minutes on average every year (1-year-olds require almost 14 hours daily, while a 17-year-old needs at least 8.25 hours), a startling 80 percent of kids ages 11 to 17 get less than the recommended amount, and 54 percent of 17-year-olds don't get to bed before 11 p.m.
Unfortunately, lost sleep can do more than just leave kids groggy and grumpy. Studies show that children who are sleep-deprived are more likely to be depressed, to catch colds and flu, and to suffer accidents on the playground. Just one hour less of sleep a night causes measurable memory and concentration problems. Behavioral problems, such as whining and short tempers, also shoot up. In fact, the frenzied energy and lack of focus in some sleep-challenged kids is often mistaken for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. And those who get less than 10 hours a night are three times more likely to be obese than those getting 12 or more, putting them at higher risk of diabetes and other weight-related conditions.
The good news: Sleep problems in kids are easily prevented and treated, experts say. You can help the entire family get more rest by addressing these major roadblocks to a good night's sleep.
Participation in too many after-school activities can get kids amped up, pushing back dinnertime, homework time—and bedtime. Compared to 1981, now the average kid has almost two hours less of unstructured time each day. Instead, they spend twice as much time in structured competitive sports, while good old-fashioned outdoor play—the running, jumping, and catch-playing that reduces stress and helps them sleep at night—has dropped by more than half. A rule of thumb: "If your kid never says, 'I'm bored,' he's overscheduled," says child psychologist Jodi A. Mindell, Ph.D., coauthor of Take Charge of Your Child's Sleep and associate director of the Sleep Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Sit down with your child and tell him, 'You're allowed to do two things this season: one sport and another activity. Which will it be?'"
Too Much Technology
Even just one caffeinated drink a day robs children of half an hour of sleep each night—another reason to monitor your child's intake of sugar-laden sodas. But caffeine can lurk in lots of surprising places, including bottled teas, chocolate, and coffee-flavored ice cream. Hefty amounts can also be found in over-the-counter medications such as Anacin, Excedrin, and Dristan, so scan the active and inactive ingredients lists for caffeine before you give your child one of these meds. And check drink and protein bar labels for guarana, a common herbal stimulant.
Bad dreams are often triggered by real-life events that frighten kids, including immunizations, being left alone, or accidents—not to mention the scary impressions left by a few minutes of the nightly news report. "Nightmares are actually good for a child. They're a way to process and make sense of both real and imaginary fears, which enables him to deal with them better in his waking life," says pediatrician Alan Greene, M.D., author of From First Kicks to First Steps and a clinical assistant professor at Stanford University. "If a nightmare wakes him up, your best approach is to comfort him and tuck him back into bed, then give him the opportunity the next day to draw pictures or tell stories to work through the underlying issues."
If your child screams, moans, or thrashes wildly in the middle of the night, and is glassy-eyed and unresponsive when you try to console him, he is probably having night terrors. As distressing as his behavior is for you to witness, it's simply a sign that he's stuck between two stages of non-REM sleep. He won't even remember the event the next morning, so it's better left unmentioned. Night terrors often occur when a child is potty training or overtired, so try leading him to the bathroom or letting him sleep a little longer in the mornings or during naps.
A Hidden Health Concern
If your child snores heavily off and on, thrashes about in bed, and awakens frequently, her struggles with sleeping may signal an underlying health condition that requires attention. "Probably 60 percent of children brought to our clinic have sleep issues related to a physical reason," says Mindell. One common culprit: sleep apnea, a condition characterized by temporary breathing disruptions during slumber. Childhood cases have skyrocketed by 436 percent in the past 20 years, largely because the number of overweight children has tripled to 16 percent in the same period (excess fatty tissue in the throat can block airways).
Other sneaky sleep-stealers include respiratory problems such as asthma and allergies, as well as restless legs syndrome (a neurological disorder characterized by an uncontrollable urge to move your legs when they're at rest) and narcolepsy (a sleep disorder marked by brief "sleep attacks" that come on during the day). If lifestyle changes such as nixing caffeine or moving the TV don't solve your little one's sleeplessness within two to four weeks, see your pediatrician or visit one of 2,000 sleep clinics nationwide to get the proper diagnosis and treatment. For a sleep clinic in your area, log on to sleepcenters.org. Getting to the root of the problem will help you and your child rest easy.