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The Whole Family Has to Work for Sandman to Make a Regular Appearance

June 08, 2016

By Sam Smith, MD, Surgeon in Chief, Arkansas Children's Hospital

LITTLE ROCK, AR. (Sept. 16, 2014) – From the moment children enter our lives, sleep becomes a primary focus for the entire family.

But the obstacles to being well-rested don't disappear after the days of round-the-clock feeding and sleep training. Many parents battle sleep issues with their kids well into the early adolescent and teen years. Heck, scores of adults struggle with finding good sleep, too.

According to the National Survey of Children's Health, 15 million U.S. children and teens don't get enough sleep. Even worse, adults get about 10 percent less sleep each night than our great grandparents did. That's an hour to an hour-and-a-half less than we should be getting.

Dr. Wendy Ward, director of Psychology training at Arkansas Children's Hospital, has a lot of experience helping families create better sleep environments. She's worked for years with the Sleep Disorders Clinic at ACH, so I knew she'd have some good perspective on how to help parents get their household's sleep back on track as school starts this fall.

She explained that the back-to-class rush can have detrimental effects of kids' sleep habits. Those post-school martial arts lessons and the endless string of homework assignments make it hard to stick to a consistent bedtime. But trying to adhere to a deadline for getting the kids in bed is crucial, she said.

Just as important is cutting out screen time before PJs time. Mothers' and fathers' "little helpers" – like the iPad, Kindle or your smart phone – may help pacify little ones while you're making preparations for the next day, but the light these devices put out actually makes us more wired.

"That blue light truly has the different effect of calming a child down and helping them get ready for sleep," Dr. Ward said. "The brain gets more excited when it processes this kind of light. It's totally different from the type of brain activity you see in a child in bed who is reading a book."

I love Dr. Ward's suggestion for altering the bedtime production to give the entire family a better chance at good sleep. She says we should turn off all electronic devices 20 minutes to an hour before the desired bedtime. Instead of watching a TV show or playing video games, use this time for quiet play in a dimly lit room. Bedtime stories are a great way to encourage this, but you might try some other ideas, like letting your kids play with blocks or quietly color.

"This will help them wind down and send the right signals to their brains to start producing the chemicals that help them sleep," Ward says.

Have a house full of sleep-deprived teens? The same rules apply.

Have them switch off that precious phone and step away from the laptop about a half hour before it's time to hit the sack. Ask them to read or maybe journal in their rooms with bright lights turned off. This will help set them up for better quality sleep that will last longer.

If you're questioning whether your kids need more sleep, it may take a little detective work. Their "symptoms" of sleep-deprivation are actually counter-intuitive, according to Dr. Ward.

"Kids often look hyper when they need more sleep," she told me. "Their stress hormones kick in and rev up their brains."

So a child who seems a little sleepy in the late afternoon but suddenly has a burst of energy – the kind you can barely keep up with – may need a short nap or an earlier bedtime.

Just how much sleep does everyone in the family need? There are a lot of variations that depend on several factors, but here are the recommendations from the National Institutes of Health:

  • Babies: 16 to 18 hours a day, including naps.
  • Preschool-age children: 11 to 12 hours a day, including a nap.
  • School-age children: at least 10 hours a day.
  • Teens: nine to 10 hours a day.
  • Adults: seven to eight hours a day.

There are plenty of other obstacles to good sleep, but as we help our kids establish a new routine for this school year, we can conquer the big ones by creating a soothing bedtime environment, cutting out screen time and remembering just how much sleep our sons and daughters need to thrive.

After all that hard work, I think we'll need some shut-eye, too!

Another tip: The MyACH iPhone app available from the Apple iTunes store can help you find lots of helpful information about preventing all kinds of injuries and illnesses. Download it free today.

Sam Smith, MD, is surgeon in chief at Arkansas Children's Hospital and a professor of Surgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He writes a column each week covering a variety of kids' medical concerns. If you have a topic you'd like him to consider addressing, email achconnect@archildrens.org.

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