October 28, 2012

Motherlode: 'Early bedtime' is good advice, but hard to follow

By KJ DELL'ANTONIA

How much sleep do your children get at night?

By now, we should know that sleep matters -- to all of us but especially to children. Well-rested children do better on tests. They get better grades. They have better impulse control. (All of these studies were summed up in a 2007 New York Magazine article by Po Bronson, "Snooze or Lose.")

A small study from researchers in Canada adds day-to-day behavior in school to the list of things that are detectably altered by getting more or less sleep. The research, published in the journal Pediatrics, showed that teachers noticed poorer behavior among typically developing children aged 7 to 11 years old after the children lost just 27 minutes of sleep a night. They were more restless and more emotionally volatile and were frustrated more easily.

Although the study was small (just 34 children) and the writers suggested that their results be considered "preliminary," the researchers were unusually definitive in making recommendations based on their own work. "Sleep must be prioritized," they wrote, "and sleep problems must be eliminated."

But in a culture in which sleep increasingly takes a back seat to nearly everything else, prioritizing sleep is difficult. In comments to a post I wrote recently (The Best Parenting Advice I Ever Got), one reader cited "establish a 7:30 bedtime" as the best advice he'd been given. Others had exactly the same reaction I had to both that advice and to this research: It's a fantastic ideal, but how can we make it happen? The National Sleep Foundation says school-age children need 10 to 11 hours of sleep a night. That 7:30 bedtime (assuming instant sleep) would make 11 in our house, where on-time school arrival can be achieved with a 6:30 wake-up. Even our 8:30 bedtime provides for the 10-hour minimum -- when it happens.

It sounds so reasonable. A child arriving home at 4 p.m. would have four and a half hours for non-school play and life. But add in any day that parents work past 4 (complicating pick-up or introducing after-school care into the mix), any after-school activity, any homework and any chores for a family dinner, and most of that time evaporates faster than you can say, "Please set the table."

"Prioritizing" that bedtime would often mean setting other things aside -- but what about the 60 minutes or more of physical activity your child is supposed to get daily? What about the importance of those chores, and of a family dinner? What of the value of pleasure reading or imaginative play?

This is an issue and a debate in our house several times a week. At one sport and one after-school club, my 11-year-old is scarcely over-scheduled, but as my husband pushes him to bed (he needs 8.5 to 9.25 sleep hours) the moment he lays down his pencil from his post-hockey practice math worksheets and I try to defend some kind of space for a chapter or two of "Artemis Fowl," we find ourselves constantly debating which of the many things we deem important is the most important as the clock ticks away. Even in writing about it, and laying out the hours, I can see that it looks as though a healthy bedtime should happen easily, but I know, to my chagrin, that it does not.

Do your children get enough sleep, and how do you protect their sleep as they grow into the years of homework, rehearsals and sports practices?

 

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

kj.dellantonia@nytimes.com

 

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