Sleep? I’ll do that later!

by Steven D. Blatt, MD

I’m tired.  I stayed up too late last night reading.  Ok, I was reading while I was watching the football game.   Anyway, I went to bed too late and got up too early resulting in only 6 hours of sleep.   Ironically, my colleague at the Golisano Children’s Hospital, Dr. Zafer Soultan just spoke about sleep disorders in adolescents at Grand Rounds.  Dr. Soultan didn’t disappoint us; this was an excellent discussion on the importance of sleep, a topic that is often overlooked.

During his remarks, Dr. Soultan, an expert in pediatric pulmonary medicine and sleep disorders, noted, “The only thing that replaces sleep is sleep.”  I tried to replace sleep with a football game and a book, but there was no way to make up for my “lost sleep.”  What about our kids, how do they fare with lost sleep?

Data shows our kids don’t get enough sleep.  In my neighborhood, the high school bus comes at 6:50 am.  Although some kids will roll out of bed at 6:35 and make the bus, many more will be up before 6 am.  Too many won’t even get breakfast.  After school, there are so many activities; sports, jobs, and dinner that must be juggled.  Undoubtedly, these students will stay up late at night doing homework or some other activity.

Even if your adolescent makes it into their bedroom at a reasonable time, there are impediments to your child getting proper sleep.  The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) found in 2006 that the average sleep duration was 7.6 hours for 14 year olds, decreasing to 6.9 hours for 17 year olds.  That’s about 1.5 hours less per night than their parents had in the mid 1970’s.  97% of adolescents have at least one electronic device in their bedroom including 57% with a TV.  Today, many kids sleep with an iPad or smart phone in their bed, watching TV on the device, texting, accessing Facebook, and listening to music.  Up to the second news from their friends.  Light from the screens.  Music, beeps, vibrations (isn’t this what an alarm clock does?).  It’s no wonder they can’t fall asleep.

When I got to work after that night of watching football, the first thing I did was make a pot of coffee, which is a bad habit I learned as an overworked resident.  Drinking coffee does not replace sleep, but it may keep me up during the day.  Our kids have adopted the same habit.  In the NSF 2006 poll, 75% of adolescents reported drinking at least one caffeinated beverage and 31% had two or more.   Additionally, there are now non-caffeinated energy drinks to keep us up.   It may seem to help a little, but remember what Dr. Soultan said, “The only thing that replaces sleep is sleep.”

Ok, it’s clear that our kids don’t get enough sleep.  We also know that caffeine helps a little, but not a lot. Does it really matter?  The NSF 2006 survey found that 28% of students fell asleep in school at least each week. On top of that, 22% fell asleep doing their homework each week.  When they looked at the relationship between sleep and grades they found that those with more sleep had better grades.

While bad grades are one thing, risking a child’s life is another. In fact, 58% of High School seniors reported driving while drowsy 15% of each week.  That is pretty scary.  Just like using a cell phone while driving or driving while intoxicated, sleep deprived drivers are involved in an increasing number of motor vehicle accidents.

What should parents do?  Parent.  Parenting can be difficult, especially with teens, many of whom don’t want to be told when to go to sleep at night.  Your adolescent needs you and your skills.  Most teens will not pay attention to their sleep patterns, so you need to help them.  Discuss this topic with them during dinner.  I know, many families don’t eat dinner with their kids.  Everyone is too busy.  Parents should take the time to eat with their kids to allow conversations about important things, like sleep!

How does a parent tell their child to sleep more?  That’s a hard question and the answer will be different for every family.  It will take more than one short discussion.  It will be something to address over time.  Sleep is a habit and lack of sleep is a bad habit.  Bad habits are hard to break and you must work at it.

Remember, sleep is free, it’s organic and it has no side effects.  It can help your child get better grades in school and make him or her a safer driver.  Keeping our children safe and healthy… sounds good to me!

For more information, please talk to your pediatrician.  The website for the National Sleep Foundation is http://www.sleepfoundation.org/ .

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