Why are kids losing sleep?

If you worry that your child isn’t getting enough sleep, you are not alone. For years, organizations like the National Sleep Foundation have warned the kids are getting less sleep than they need, and the consequences could be serious. Poor sleep is linked with bad concentration, health problems, and trouble at school.

But how badly are we doing, really? And what are the biggest stumbling blocks to improving family sleep?

A study published by the journal Sleep Health offers some answers. Researchers randomly selected more than 1100 U.S. parents–each with at least one school-aged child at home–to answer questions about their sleep practices and beliefs.

The results included a lot of interesting trivia. My favorite? 1 in 4 parents admitted that they send email or text messages after waking up in the middle of the night. Sixteen percent said they had a child or teen who does the same. Not a good idea if you want to get back to sleep quickly!

But the biggest points that caught my attention were these:

1. Most kids seem to be running a sleep deficit

Ninety percent of the children are getting less sleep than is recommended, and for many kids, the shortfall is big: Forty-four percent of parents estimated that on school nights their kids get at least one hour less sleep than they need.

2. Parents cited “scheduled evening activities” and “homework” as the most common causes of sleep difficulty in children

Asked to consider their children’s sleep patterns during the previous week, parents reported that a variety of factors “made it more difficult” for their kids to sleep. But the two most frequently mentioned were “scheduled evening activities” (34%) and “homework” (28%).

Other common trouble makers included using a computer, tablet, or phone in the bedroom (each named by about 20% of parents); wrestling with uncomfortable room temperatures (18%); playing video games or watching TV in the bedroom (16-17%); and coping with indoor noise (15%).

3. Enforcing limits on caffeine and technology use could make a big difference

We already knew that caffeine keeps kids awake. You’ve probably also heard that exposure to artificial lighting – especially the blue light that comes from electronic devices – messes with the brain’s nighttime chemistry and makes it harder to get a good night’s sleep.

But this survey offers something new – hints regarding the impact of enforcing sleep hygiene rules. Researchers noticed statistically significant links between parental limits and time spent asleep.

For example, parents who said they always enforced rules about caffeine consumption (no caffeine in the afternoon or evenings) had kids who sleep an average of 22 minutes more each night, even after adjusting for a child’s age.

Similarly, children slept longer when parents enforced rules about going to bed on time (24 minutes) and imposed nighttime curfews on the use of television (13 minutes), using phones (19 minutes), and computer or tablet use (16 minutes).

Of course, surveys like this one aren’t proof that enforcing rules causes better sleep in children. They merely tell us that the two tend to go together. Moreover, we don’t know for sure how long the children really slept. We only have the parents’ testimony, and parents aren’t the most accurate judges. But in light of what we know about the brain, these results make sense.

Can we do a better job helping kids fall asleep at night? Keeping electronics out of the bedroom might be a crucial step.

What makes it difficult for your child to sleep?

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