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Young Children Don't Sleep Enough

Even Infants Are Sleep-Deprived, a Trend That Continues

Bad Habits Start Young continued...

"Families really need to rethink the importance of sleep in their households," Wolfson tells WebMD. "When children don't get enough sleep, their parents don't get enough sleep." Indeed, the survey finds that parents of infants lose about 200 hours of sleep in their child's first year.

She wasn't involved in the new survey, but her own research shows that a baby's sleep deprivation at levels noted in the NSF survey creates "enough everyday stress" to accumulate to levels of a large traumatic event," says Wolfson, author of The Woman's Book of Sleep: A Complete Resource Guide.

"Parents whose babies sleep better report higher satisfaction levels in their marriage," she says. "Can we say parents will inevitably divorce if their infants don't get enough sleep? No, but it is a risk factor that should raise concern."

She says that well-meaning parents often mistakenly set the tone for their infant's poor sleep habits. "Many wait in their infant or toddler's room until they fall asleep, but when you do that, you don't teach the child self-soothing techniques."

Instead, she recommends that parents help calm their children with goodnight rituals -- such as reading a story -- and then leave before the child falls asleep. Babies who fall asleep while alone in their room are more likely to sleep the night. "Children who need you to be in the room to fall asleep are more likely to need you when they wake in the middle of night; they look for you to be there."

Another surprising finding: A slight majority of doctors -- 52% -- don't ask parents about their child's sleep habits during medical exams. The American Academy of Pediatrics initiated a treatment policy in 2002 suggesting that pediatricians should.

"That really surprises me," says Debra Babcock, MD, a pediatrician in Los Altos, Calif., who has studied sleep disorders in children at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Center.

"Although loss of sleep can weaken immunity, it's hard to say if sleep deprivation leads to any permanent impairment. But it may cause permanent behavioral problems," she tells WebMD. "There is evidence that children who show signs of attention deficient disorder are, indeed, sleep deprived. Certainly there are other reasons that kids get ADD, but being overtired may be one of them. Some kids treated for ADD, in fact, are in need of a good night's sleep."

How can you tell if your children are sleep-deprived?

  • Do you have to wake them each morning? "If so, they are not getting enough sleep," says Mindell, also a professor of psychology at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
  • Do they sleep longer on weekends than during school days? It's another sign of sleep deprivation.
  • Are they cranky, irritable, and overactive? "Compare their mood and behavior on days when they get more sleep. Once you have a marker on what kids should be like, you'll get an indication of whether they're getting enough."

Based on recommended levels, that is 14-15 hours per day for infants, 12-14 hours for toddlers, 11-13 hours for preschoolers, and 10-11 hours for kids in first to fifth grade.

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