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Kids and Sleep: What Parents Need to Know

Is your child cranky? Exhausted? Falling asleep in class? Here's Help!

America's elementary schools are full of students too tired to learn because of lost sleep according to a study from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. In fact, many kids are experiencing "jet lag" symptoms, says Denise Amschler, professor of physiology and health science at Ball State.

"The study found that the majority of youngsters regularly experience sleep loss and feel sleepy during the day at least two to four times weekly. Nearly half admitted to having trouble waking up in the morning on school days," says Amschler. "Elementary-school-aged children require an average of 10 to 11 hours of sleep each night, and most aren't getting it."


The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) agrees with Amschler's recommendation and says that about 69 percent of children ages 10 and under regularly experience some type of sleep problem. The most common:

°        Insomnia. It involves difficulty falling asleep, difficulty remaining asleep, and/or early morning awakenings. Insomnia can be short-term due to stress, pain, or a medical or psychiatric condition. Treating underlying conditions, developing good sleep practices, and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule can help.

°        Sleepwalking. This usually occurs an hour or two after sleep onset and may last from 5 to 20 minutes. As sleep deprivation often contributes to sleepwalking, moving bedtime earlier can help.

°        Sleep terrors. These occur early in the night and can be frightening to parents. A child may scream out and appear distressed, although he is not awake or aware during a sleep terror. Not getting enough sleep, having an irregular sleep schedule, stress, or sleeping in a new environment may make sleep terrors more likely. Increasing sleep time may help.

°        Snoring. It occurs when there is a partial blockage in the airway that causes a noise due to a vibration of the back of the throat. Snoring can be caused by nasal congestion or enlarged adenoids or tonsils that block the airway. Some children who snore may have sleep apnea (see below).

°        Nightmares. These frightening dreams awaken a child. They usually occur in the later part of the night and can result from a scary event, stress, or change in a child's routine. Using a nightlight or a security object often helps.

°        Restless legs syndrome. RLS is a movement disorder that includes uncomfortable and unpleasant feelings — often described as crawly or tingly — in the legs causing an overwhelming urge to move. These feelings make it difficult to fall asleep. RLS can be treated with changes in bedtime routines and with medications. Talk with your child's doctor if you suspect RLS.


Sleep apnea is marked by loud snoring and disturbed sleep caused by interrupted breathing patterns. In children, the leading cause is enlarged tonsils and adenoids, and the first line of treatment is surgical removal. If untreated, experts say, sleep apnea may contribute to serious health problems in later life including hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

Wearing a special mask to bed helps kids with sleep apnea breathe and sleep better according to a study at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore, Maryland. The breathing mask, which delivers a gentle, steady flow of air called positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy, significantly improves breathing and blood-oxygen levels when worn regularly, researchers reported in the journal Pediatrics. Parents also reported that their children had improved daytime alertness after PAP therapy.

Many of the children used the mask sporadically, which reduced the effectiveness of the treatment according to the researchers. They stress the importance of parents monitoring mask usage, so that kids can receive the maximum benefit from PAP therapy.


Watching TV for more than two hours per day can lead to sleep problems in kids, according to a study associated with the Healthy Steps for Young Children program.

Forty-one percent of the children studied had a television in their bedroom, and this was associated with sleep problems, researchers say. In particular, watching TV close to bedtime has been linked to bedtime resistance, difficulty falling asleep, anxiety concerning sleep, and sleeping fewer hours, according to the NSF.


Have grade-school kids ever been busier than they are these days? There's an increasing demand on their time from homework, sports, and other extracurricular and social activities. In addition to the lure of TV, many kids at this age become interested in texting friends and surfing the web. Some also increase their caffeine consumption. All of this can lead to sleep problems, says the NSF.

To help kids get the sleep they need:

°        Teach them about healthy sleep habits.

°        Emphasize the need for a regular and consistent sleep schedule and bedtime routine.

°        Make your child's bedroom conducive to sleep – dark, cool, and quiet. Keep TV and computers out of the bedroom.

°        Make sure your child avoids caffeine, and discuss the fact that it's not just coffee that contains caffeine. Consuming chocolate, tea, energy drinks and some soft drinks, can lead to overly caffeinated kids at bedtime.


The NSF suggests talking with your doctor if your child has any of the following sleep problems:


°        Problems breathing or noisy breathing.

°        Snoring, especially if it is loud.

°        Unusual nighttime awakenings.

° Difficulty falling asleep and maintaining sleep, especially if you see daytime sleepiness and/or behavioral problems.

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