July 7, 2013

Motherlode: Kids' rest not assured, especially in summer

By KJ DELL-ANTONIA

What does sleep do for us? Get enough (as few Americans do) and your odds of living a longer and more healthy life go up. Poor sleep is a risk factor for depression and substance abuse. The lack of sleep has been linked with weight gain and elevated risks of cancer and heart disease.

In children, the need for sleep is even more profound. More and better sleep is associated with higher test scores and happiness, while the lack of it can lead to everything from a mistaken diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to hormonal disruptions.

But summer can be a tough time to get the full night's sleep (12-14 hours for toddlers, 10-11 hours for school-age children, 8.5 to nine hours for teens). Between increased daylight and fluctuating schedules, many families (including mine) find themselves struggling to help children get the sleep they need.

Adults are somewhat fascinated by sleep. We know we need it, we love to have it and we know we aren't getting enough. Jane E. Brody's last two columns have been on sleep: how much we don't get, and how we can make it better. We grownups are at least willing to consider our sleep, and we know we feel better when we get more (although that doesn't stop many of us from staying up way too late reading our email or finishing a book).

Children are usually supremely uninterested in their sleep hygiene. Most resist going to bed, particularly when the sun is still shining, and many persist in their early-morning waking patterns no matter how late they're up the night before or want to sleep in (but only on the mornings when other activities necessitate an early wake-up call). Late nights and an early day-camp bus, for example, do not mix.

Such is the situation at our house. My husband is a sleep martinet, well up on the research regarding sleep and children's health and also deeply protective of our evenings. I am more indulgent of late summer nights kicking balls, "fishing" in the tiny pond or watching the Stanley Cup finals. Without my support, bedtimes have slipped ever later. Mornings, though, while they can move a bit back in the summer, haven't seen a corresponding two-hour wake-up push back.

Some results are pretty obvious: more-fragile emotions, less resiliency, general crankiness. But while we can see it, the children can't, and it's still hard to push them into bed before the sun goes down. I've quickly come around to my husband's way of thinking.

These "Steps for More, and Better, Sleep," including timing both large meals and vigorous activity for at least two to three hours before bedtime and encouraging calmer, stress-free evenings, do apply to children, as does the suggestion that we avoid television and computer time right before bed.

We've also found help in sticking even more rigorously to our bedtime routine: a chapter from a read-aloud book (right now, "Pigeon Post" from the "Swallows and Amazons" series).

But a lot still gets in our way, including a lack of black-out shades or air-conditioning, making for a too-bright, too-warm, too-muggy room in which the children are supposed to settle down for their nightly rest.

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

kj.dellantonia@nytimes.com

 

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