Lack of Sleep Is Harming America’s Children

School-aged children are sleeping less than they should. Inadequate sleep leaves children worse than just feeling tired.

By Andrea Pisani Babich

Fewer than half of America’s school-aged children get sufficient sleep each night, according to a new study presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 2019 National Conference & Exhibition. Research shows that the outlook is bleak for an entire generation of children suffering from widespread sleep deprivation.

Inadequate sleep in children has been associated with an increased risk of injuries, high risk behaviors, drowsy driving, hypertension, obesity, and depression. On the other hand, children who get sufficient sleep every night demonstrate improved behavior, learning, attention, memory, emotional regulation, quality of life, and mental and physical health.

What does sufficient sleep look like? The AAP recommends children 6 to 12 years old sleep 9 to 12 hours every 24-hour period. Children 13 to 18 years old should regularly sleep 8 to 10 hours. When children are young, it’s a little easier to determine if they are sleeping enough. You know when they go to sleep and usually know when they wake up. But as they enter the school age years, parents lose a little bit of control over their children’s sleep patterns, and that can spell trouble.

Pediatricians Sound the Alarm

The National Survey of Children’s Health for 2016-2017 gave researchers the information they needed to associate adequate sleep with behavioral markers of flourishing in children. The survey asked parents and caregivers of 49,050 children aged 6 to 17 how long a randomly selected child in their care slept each night. It also asked questions about these children’s behaviors that demonstrated flourishing as defined by the survey authors.

These behaviors include:

  • showing interest and curiosity in learning new things
  • caring about doing well in school
  • doing required homework
  • working to finish tasks
  • staying calm and in control when faced with a challenge

The study’s authors then analyzed these responses to determine the effect of sleep on children’s behavior and ability to flourish. Here’s what the researchers found.

Only 47.6% of the 49,050 children identified in the survey regularly slept at least 9 hours on an average weeknight. Compared to children who did not get adequate sleep each night, the nearly 48% who were well-rested were

  • 44% more likely to show interest and curiosity in learning new things
  • 33% more likely to do all required homework
  • 28% more inclined to care about doing well in school
  • 14% more likely to complete tasks

In summary, the study’s abstract author, Dr. Hoi See Tsao, concluded that children who regularly sleep nine or more hours per night are more likely “to demonstrate measures of childhood flourishing in comparison to children with insufficient sleep.”

Barriers to Sleep for Children

The survey did not reveal what was keeping these children awake longer than is healthy for them. But researchers have identified several risk factors associated with unhealthy sleep duration in children including

  • lower levels of parental or caregiver education
  • children living in families whose income is lower than the federal poverty level
  • increased usage of digital media
  • increased number of adverse childhood experiences
  • presence of mental health issues in children or their caregivers

Dr. Tsao recommends helping children get the sleep they need by

  • limiting digital media usage and restricting it at least an hour before bedtime
  • establishing and maintaining soothing bedtime routines
  • appealing to school districts to control the ever-lengthening school day
  • encouraging school districts to delay school start times for teenagers

For more information on healthy sleep for children of every age, see our Near-Exhaustive Sleep Guide for Parents.

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