It’s about that time: the start of the school year. Bleary-eyed kids everywhere are dragged from bed, thrown into clothing, handed an energy bar and glass of juice, and shuttled off to spend hours sitting at a desk. They come home, do hours of homework, squeeze in some screen time, squeeze some vaguely edible goo into their mouths, update their Facebook status, post a few Instagram pics, and climb into bed by 10 PM sharp, Snapchatting their way to the land of Nod. Then it starts all over again.
I’m exaggerating, a bit. Things aren’t this bad—childhood Facebook usage is actually down! But too many children aren’t getting enough sleep.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that:
Infants 4 months to 12 months should sleep 12 to 16 hours per 24 hours (including naps) on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
Children 1 to 2 years of age should sleep 11 to 14 hours per 24 hours (including naps) on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
Children 3 to 5 years of age should sleep 10 to 13 hours per 24 hours (including naps) on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
Children 6 to 12 years of age should sleep 9 to 12 hours per 24 hours on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
Teenagers 13 to 18 years of age should sleep 8 to 10 hours per 24 hours on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
According to a 2004 study of American kids’ sleep habits commissioned by the National Sleep Foundation:
That was 2004, before smartphones, tablets, and the meteoric rise of digital technology. Seeing as how the presence of technology in the homes and bedrooms of our children can reduce the amount of sleep they get, I’d wager that sleep has only gotten worse. It has.
But just because kids are getting less sleep on average doesn’t mean your kids are. The average of the population doesn’t say anything about the individual. It’s just an indication that the problem is widespread—and that it’s something you should honestly assess to make sure you’re not contributing to the trend.
What you can do short of tracking their sleep with an Oura ring is to watch for the obvious symptoms of inadequate sleep.
They shouldn’t be yawning all the time, or blatantly drowsy and exhausted.
They should be alert, engaged. Not every kid will bounce off the walls or be a constant blur of energy, of course.
They shouldn’t have trouble getting up in the morning.
They shouldn’t fall asleep immediately.
They shouldn’t be prone to meltdowns over nonsense.
Parents know when their kids haven’t had enough sleep. Deep down, they know.
We adults know. If we don’t get enough sleep, we get horrible brain fog. We have trouble forming complete sentences. We feel confused and anxious for no apparent reason. We forsake the gods of our ancestors to prostrate ourselves before coffee. In fact, the most serious consequences and symptoms of sleep deprivation are all mental and psychological.
During sleep, we clear out old memories to make room for new ones. Without sleep, we forget what we’ve just learned. We arguably don’t learn without sleep. The memories simply don’t take.
During sleep, we prune errant connections between neurons. Without sleep, we can’t prune the brain plaque that can eventually lead to Alzheimer’s and dementia.
If sleep deprivation interferes with an adult’s brain function to such a degree, what does sleep deprivation do to a brain that’s still developing?
It can cause profound neuronal loss. When a kid is sleep deprived for long enough, their brains actually shrink.
It promotes aberrant connectivity patterns in the fronto-limbic, a region of the brain involved in emotion regulation (tantrums, anyone?).
It impairs performance in the classroom.
Because that’s the most important part of childhood. Heck, it’s why human childhood takes so long—we need time to develop that impressive brain. A baby giraffe might pour out of his mother and instantly clamber to his feet, able to walk. He’s clumsy, but he can walk.
As humans, our brains are almost everything. They’re our most powerful tools. They allow us to manipulate language, numbers, reality itself. Without our brains, we’re rather unimpressive relative to other animals. Our strength, agility, explosiveness, and speed can’t compare. Your average black bear could outrun Usain Bolt, outfight Conor McGregor, and outswim Michael Phelps. We need our brains. As a parent, it’s important that you do everything you can to encourage and enable your kid’s brain development, or at least remove the barriers that impede it. Bad sleep is the biggest impediment there is.
Sleep doesn’t just affect brain development and function. There are metabolic effects, too. Just as poor sleep can increase insulin resistance and lead to obesity in adults, poor sleep can make your kids insulin resistant and overweight.
This could take the form of candles and warm lighting. This could mean no TV or screens at night. This could mean buying a pair of child-size blue blocking shades. Or maybe it’s all three at once. Whatever you do, make sure your kids aren’t bathing in blue light toward the end of the day—it can throw off your circadian rhythm and make getting to sleep at a reasonable time harder.
Candle lighting could be a great way to expose your kids to safe fire behavior, by the way. Letting them light the candles will get them involved, get them enthusiastic about the new practice, and teach them how to handle themselves around fire. Win, win, win.
The flip-side of blue light avoidance at night is the fact that our bodies expect it during the day, and that getting a lot of natural light (which includes significant portions of blue) in the morning and afternoon also establishes a healthy circadian rhythm. In fact, daytime light exposure increases their resistance to blue light at night.
With recess taking a huge hit these days, kids are spending fewer and fewer hours outside immersed in natural light. That should change.
Certain carotenoids don’t convert to retinol, instead making their way to the eye to protect against blue light absorption. They are astaxanthin, lutein, and zeaxanthin.
Salmon, shrimp, and krill oil for astaxanthin. Wild salmon astaxanthin is more bioavailable than farmed, but farmed is still pretty good.
For lutein and zeaxanthin, you’ll want to incorporate leafy greens and orange egg yolks. Kale, spinach, collards, chard, and mustard greens are among the best sources, while darker yolks are also great sources. Eat both; I suspect yolks might be easier to incorporate into a picky kid’s diet than kale.
Although the research is mixed on this topic, with some studies finding that the most active kids actually sleep a little less than the most sedentary kids, I’m going with a parent’s intuition. Whenever my kids were particularly active, they had no trouble getting to bed at a reasonable time. It wasn’t just physical, either. If we had a party at the house and the kids spent all day interacting with friends and other children, they were very easy to put to bed.
The routine itself doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you have one and stick to it. That alone has been shown to reduce problematic sleep behavior in babies and toddlers, improve night waking, help children fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, and—not insignificantly—reduce maternal stress.
The human body is made of biological clocks. Everything you do, from eating and exercising to sleeping, works better when you have a schedule. That way, your cellular clocks know what to expect and can assemble the physiological mise en place rather than rush around in panic mode because you’re completely unpredictable.
Set a bedtime and stick to it. Studies show that kids with parents who establish bedtimes and actually enforce them get more sleep. Furthermore, irregular sleep habits make it harder to establish a healthy circadian rhythm.
Common isn’t normal. Many things are common, like cooking with seed oils and watching five hours of TV every day. But they aren’t normal—they aren’t congruent with our biology. Kids deserve the opportunity to sleep as much as they can. If they’ll go an hour more than what the experts say they need, so be it. They probably need it.
If you’re doing everything right (proper light exposure, good sleep hygiene, good diet, plenty of activity during the day, a routine), your kid will probably get sleepy at about the right time. The beauty of establishing a consistent bedtime and bedtime routine is that it will train your kid to naturally get sleepy at the around the same time each day. What you establish becomes the “right time.”
What you should avoid are struggles over sleep.
Naps count toward a child’s daily sleep requirement, so let them happen. Just be cautious about timing. In my experience, under-2s can take a nap whenever without ruining their bedtime; after age 2, nap timing becomes very crucial.
If you were paying attention, you probably noticed that most of the content in today’s post applies equally well to adults. By all means, take these tips and apply it to your life, too. But definitely make sure your kids are getting enough sleep. It could quite literally help determine their trajectory through life and realize their potential. Good sleep is foundational.
Thanks for reading, everyone! Do your kids (or you) get enough sleep? What methods, tips, and tricks have worked for you and your family?
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