Can we stop worrying about kids' sleep?

| 29 Feb 2012 | 01:40

Whether your child is a newborn, third grader or high school senior, sleep is likely something you worry over. Now, a new study that you may have read about earlier this week in Healthy Kids suggests that kids have never gotten as much shut-eye as the experts recommended — and that a little less is probably OK.

Probably. News stories about the new study didn’t mention some of the downsides of short-sleeping in kids. University of Michigan researchers, for example, have found that teens who sleep less than 6½ hours a night were two-and-a-half times more likely to develop high blood pressure and borderline high blood pressure. Case Western Reserve University scientists have reported that losing just one hour of sleep a night doubles a child’s risk for becoming overweight. And it’s no surprise that skimping affects schoolwork, too. A Brown Medical School study of 74 healthy, academically successful 6- to 12-year-olds voluntarily highlighted the difference that an earlier bedtime can make. When the kids slept less than 8 hours per night, they had trouble remembering facts they’d already been taught and were slower to pick up new information than when they got 9.7 hours per night.

The hidden bonus? When your child sleeps well, you sleep better. Your child’s “perfect sleep number” may be higher or lower than his friends’ of the same age. How do you find it and achieve it? These steps can help:

Ask about sleepiness at your next parent-teacher conference. Plenty of kids are tough-to-wake in the morning. That alone doesn’t mean yours is sleep-deprived. But daytime sleepiness is a red flag — ask teachers what they’re seeing.

Let teens catch up on weekends. Teen hormone shifts alter their sleep/wake cycles — a gradual slide into a more night-owl existence that starts in middle school. Most school schedules haven’t caught up with the fact that a teen’s body clock is telling her to go to bed later and wake up later. Sleep experts I’ve interviewed say it’s OK to let them catch up by sleeping in on weekends, and to take naps if needed. Just make sure this doesn’t fuel even later bedtimes. (Every solution can create a new problem!)

Unplug bedroom TVs. One in three kids ages up to age 6 has a TV in the bedroom. So do 71 percent of 8- to 18-year-olds. Research suggests that pre-bed viewing acts as a stimulant. Consider collecting phones, iPods and other electronics before lights-out, too. (I know, this won’t be popular — let us know how it goes in your house!). Nearly one in five teens is awakened by phone calls, emails and text messages a couple of nights a week, according to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2011 Sleep in America survey.

Decaffeinate them. Fancy coffee drinks aren’t the only problem. Chocolate, some fruit sodas, bottled iced teas and popular energy drinks are also caffeinated. Three out of four kids between ages 5 and 12 drink caffeinated beverages daily — with older kids sipping the equivalent of three cans of cola, University of Nebraska researchers say. The more they drank, the more sleep problems they experienced. Switching to water, milk or iced herbal tea can help.