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Sleep and School Aged Children

Getting Sleep Back on Track
by David A. Morris, LCSW

A school-aged child needs sleep to function at their best.

A school-aged child needs sleep to function at their best.

If you have school aged children, you might notice something different about their demeanor during the first few weeks of school. Irritated, agitated, drifting, even miserable at times would not be an overstatement for most parents observing their children during the first week of school. Obviously, new demands and responsibilities can be attributed to this malaise but a potentially overlooked cause is sleep deprivation. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), the largest professional organization of sleep specialists in the U.S., recently published sleep recommendations prepared by a panel of experts. Here they are:

  • Infants > 4 to 12 months = sleep 12 to 16 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
  • Children > 1 to 2 years = sleep 11 to 14 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
  • Children > 3 to 5 years = sleep 10 to 13 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
  • Children > 6 to 12 years = sleep 9 to 12 hours per 24 hours
  • Teenagers > 13 to 18 years = sleep 8 to 10 hours per 24 hours

“Wow!” was my first reaction when reading these numbers but the panel found sleeping fewer hours than recommended is associated with attention issues, behavior problems, and even learning deficits. In addition, this type of sleep bankruptcy could increase the risk of injuries, obesity, mood dips, and more. The panel also expressed concern for teenagers whom are at an increased risk for self-harm and suicidal thoughts due to insufficient sleep. So we know sleep is important but how can we encourage the switch from summer sleep to school sleep.

Here’s a few tips to get you started:

  1. Think Back and Track – Try to recall this summer and your child’s sleep cycle (even if it was 4am – 1pm). With less demands and less scheduling, your child’s sleep might not have been awakened by alarms or other responsibilities. This “natural” sleep might have a few indicators of data to determine their sleep needs. Track the number of hours from the time your child fell asleep to the wake up time and come up with an average. This average is what your child will need during the school year as well.
  2. A Regular Schedule – the brain can often work like a sleep bank. Make a full payment/deposit and it is satisfied. Give it less than required and it will start to take those hours in different ways. To keep this from occurring, look to a consistent regular schedule to build your child’s routine and allow their brain’s synapses to fire the commands. If possible, try to maintain your routine within 30 minutes of the proposed time. If you eat meals together at 6pm, then try each time to get it between 5:45pm and 6:15pm. The same goes with sleep time. Try to start getting ready for sleep around the same time each night. Help your child develop a routine before sleep that allows their mind to anticipate that it should start winding down for sleep.
  3. Naps Beware – Naps can be a beautiful thing but also have the ability to put your school-aged child in a bad sleep cycle. Sleeping directly after school might make sense once in a while but a routine of this behavior will push back the nighttime routine without changing the wake up time. The child may find it harder and harder to fall asleep at night, triggering them to get on the phone, or stream their show or start Snap chatting with each other or most often all three which pushes the sleep time further into the night. If a nap is needed, keep it at 40-50 minutes or less and do not make it a routine.

For more information on how to improve your school aged child’s sleep routine or even your own, contact our therapists at New Directions Counseling Service. They have the care, concern and expertise to help you make a lasting change.