Who's Yawning Now? It's a Shocker
How great would it be to be a kid again? You get your meals made for you, the biggest crisis of the day is a sharing war, and you get tons of blissful sleep, since you don't have to do laundry, pay bills, or stay up wondering when the teachers strike is going to end.
Don't let the haze of nostalgia obscure the truth about who's yawning now. Today's kids are falling into a dangerous snooze gap. And if you thought skipping ZZZs took a toll on you, your mood, and your coffee-to-go budget, look at what it's doing to the next generation's waistlines and health: Teenagers who get less than 6.5 hours of shut-eye per night are more than twice as likely to get into high blood pressure trouble. And scientists at Case Western Reserve University recently found that losing just 1 hour per night doubles -- that's right, doubles -- a child's odds for becoming overweight (and the odds are already stacked against them). And that, as we say in medicine, is an "expected consequence," since the drives for sleep, food, sex, and thirst share the same brain areas. So if there's not enough sleep, people make it up with more food.
Additionally, our bodies and brains need sleep the way trains need tracks: They don't work without it. Sleep quantity is needed for restoring good brain-cell functioning (i.e., the ability to perform physically as well as mentally, since both coordination and thought require those brain cells to work well). Sleep quantity is needed for pumping out the right amount of growth hormone, too, which keeps kids growing up, not out. Yet most kids (even little ones) simply aren't getting enough rest. While teens need 9 hours of sleep per night, polls show that most get fewer than 7. Meanwhile, 62% of elementary- and middle-schoolers carry sleep deficits of at least 1 hour per night.
Making more -- and better -- sleep a family priority can help children and parents. Here's how everyone in your household can get more of this delicious, refreshing, essential downtime:
- Get your kids (and yourself) on a regular bedtime schedule, even on the weekends. This helps set your internal clock, so your body knows when to fall asleep and when to wake up. Use your DVR, so kids do not have to stay up late to see their favorite shows. For children and young teens, that means dictating bedtime: In one recent poll, kids whose parents set a "time for bed" hour averaged 45 minutes more sleep per night than those who went to bed on their own.
- Take an after-dinner walk or bike ride together. Regular physical activity may help everyone sleep longer and more soundly. Researchers suspect that sleep patterns are easily influenced by activity levels. Just finish your exercise a couple of hours before bedtime; otherwise, it could be more stimulating than sedating.
- Nix hidden caffeine. Your 11-year-old probably isn't chugging coffee, but did you know that chocolate and chocolate drinks and some bottled iced teas, fruit sodas, and energy waters are caffeinated? (Not to mention colas or "energy drinks," but you knew that.) Sleep researchers say elementary- and middle-schoolers who have sleep problems improve significantly when water, milk, or fruit teas without caffeine are substituted for caffeinated drinks. Discover what snacks can boost kids' smarts.
- If there's a TV in the bedroom, take it out. At least half of American children have TVs in their rooms. But before-bed viewing amps kids up (you too) instead of settling them down. Have them turn off electronics, like computers, instant messaging, and video games, an hour or so before bed for the same reason. Find out why nighttime Web surfing is linked to sleep problems.
- Encourage teens and tweens to nap on weekends. During adolescence, natural shifts in the sleep hormone melatonin can suddenly make kids want to go to bed 2 hours later and wake up 2 hours later. Considering the early-morning start time of most American high schools, it's no wonder half the kids at bus stops look exhausted. Help them relax and wind down before bedtime during the week, so they're more likely to nod off; and allow nap breaks on weekends, so they can catch up on missed ZZZs. Try a 6-minute nap to improve your memory.
For important advice on raising happy and healthy kids, visit the RealAge Kids' Health Center and be sure to check out our new book, The Smart Parent's Guide to Getting Your Kids Through Checkups, Illnesses, and Accidents.