Bailing Your Son Out of Sleep Debt


Is your son sleeping through the night? What time does he go to bed? What is his bedtime routine? When is naptime? We are regularly bombarded with analysis of the sleep of our newborn babies and young children from our friends, family members, and pediatricians. Yet, we don’t give the same level of thought and care to this topic for our 8-year olds, 12-year olds, 14-year olds, and 17-year olds! While sleep is an important focus for the preschool set, sleep continues to be a major factor in leading a healthy, happy, and productive life far beyond the baby and toddler years.

The American Academy of Pediatrics tells us that children 6 to 12 years old should sleep 9 to 12 hours per 24 hours and that teens ages 13 to 18 should be getting 8 to 10 hours of sleep. When a typical evening for a 12-year old includes homework, soccer practice at school, a trip to the store for materials forgotten for a project due tomorrow, and swim practice after that, it can be hard to find time to sit down for dinner together, let alone stick to an appropriate bedtime. Does that really matter for kids this age? You bet it does!

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine reminds us that getting good quality sleep improves, “attention, behavior, learning, memory, emotional regulation, quality of life, and mental and physical health” in children. Good quality sleep also affects physical health and growth, something particularly important for children, tweens, and teens, and sleep contributes to cardiovascular health and building a strong immune system. Consistently getting enough sleep also guards against developing diabetes.

What happens when children do not get enough sleep? As many parents have, no doubt, noticed, a lack of sleep in children does not present as sleepiness. In fact, children who are lacking in sleep can become hyperactive. According to the American Psychological Association, “Sleep loss also interferes with the learning of young people in our nation's schools, with 60 percent of grade school and high school children reporting that they are tired during the daytime and 15 percent of them admitting to falling asleep in class.” When a child gets less than the recommended hours of sleep or gets poor quality sleep on a regular basis, he develops a sleep debt. Sleep debt impairs decision-making and leads to increased risk-taking for children, teens, and adults alike. Impaired decision-making significantly affects teen drivers. “According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsiness and fatigue cause more than 100,000 traffic accidents each year--and young drivers are at the wheel in more than half of these crashes.” Sleep deficits in teens also, “increase the risk of accidents, injuries, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and depression.”

Contrary to popular belief, children cannot compensate for a sleep debt with just one night of good quality sleep on the weekend. The best way to ensure they are reaping the benefits of sleep is to have a consistently positive sleep schedule from a young age.

The earlier we help our children develop good sleep habits, the better. A University of Michigan Health System study conducted specifically about boys showed that having good sleep habits as preschool children can even affect boys’ likelihood to use drugs, tobacco, or alcohol as teenagers, “even when other issues such as depression, aggression, attention problems, and parental alcoholism were taken into account.”


Building Good Sleep Habits

So, what can you do now to give your children a strong foundation for good sleep habits throughout their lives?

  • Help your kids stick to a consistent bedtime. While we are all living in a 24-hour-a-day connected world, one factor that makes a consistent bedtime more realistic is avoiding over-scheduling. Help your children select a reasonable amount of activities and commitments so that they have time to fit in a healthy dinner, homework, and some downtime connecting with family before bed. While you should avoid over-scheduling, it is beneficial to provide opportunities for physical activity during the day. In adults, studies show that getting 150 minutes of exercise a week leads to 65% better quality sleep.

  • Provide a healthy sleep environment. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the best quality sleep is achieved when we create bedrooms that feel like sanctuaries. In designing optimal sleep environments for your children, consider light, noise, temperature, and even smell. Research indicates that room temperature close to 65 degrees lead to the highest quality sleep. We also know that noise can disrupt sleep. The brain continues to react to sounds during sleep, so insulating your child’s bedroom from unnecessary sounds can go a long way in helping him get enough sleep. There is even some indication that sleeping in freshly laundered sheets helps people wake feeling more rested and that the scent of lavender helps people relax, including decreasing their heart rate and blood pressure.

  • Bedrooms should be screen-free zones at bedtime. All family devices can be charged in a neutral location. Light and darkness help set our circadian rhythms and tell our bodies when we should wind down for sleep. Too much light in the bedroom can be problematic because it can disrupt these rhythms. While this is true of all light, it is especially true of blue light, the light that comes from television, computer, tablet, and smartphone screens. In the hours before bed, our bodies release melatonin, a hormone that tells us it is time to wind down in preparation for bedtime. Blue light impedes the body’s ability to release melatonin, forcing our children’s bodies into an alert state at the time they should be slowing down. While all types of light can change our circadian rhythms, blue light is particularly disruptive. Take all electronics out of your child’s room before he goes to sleep. In fact, it is recommended to stop all screen activities thirty minutes to one hour before bedtime.

  • Talk to your children about the importance of sleep for children, teens, and adults. If you have not enforced good sleep habits with your child, know that you can start now!

  • Finally, serve as a role model by prioritizing sleep for yourself! Not only will you reap the benefits of healthy sleep habits, but you will be setting your children up for a lifetime of good sleep.

So while our 8, 12, 14, or 17-year-old boy may not need to be rocked to sleep or care to cuddle for a bedtime story, we can at least put the same thought and attention to their sleep as we did when they were much smaller versions of themselves.  The formation of good sleep habits will undoubtedly give your son an advantage with each task he tackles during his day.

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Lindsay Arnoult, Middle School Director at University School

Lindsay Arnoult, Middle School Director at University School, has served as a teacher, department chair, dean, and international programs coordinator in her more than 15 years in education. She believes that Middle School is a time when students should sample many activities and classes to find their lifelong interests and passions. She found her own passion and future career when she walked in to her seventh-grade French class. Lindsay and her husband raise their young daughter bilingually in French and English.