Thursday, September 17, 2015

How Many Hours of Sleep Does a Child Need?

On a recent  trip that crossed several time zones and included three really early flights, I became very aware of how lack of sleep affects a person. Sometimes we forget how important sleep is, not only for an adult, but for a child.

School has started for most children in the the U.S. As parents buy school supplies, post schedules, and meet the teachers, one area many parents forget is their child's sleep schedule. Children often stayed up late during the summer months. Suddenly school starts and morning comes too quickly for many young students. This does not include just the  first few days of school. Far too many children do not get the ten or eleven hours of sleep needed by elementary school students. What happens to these tired children?

Unfortunately, some of them end up sleeping on the bus or during the first hour of class. Teachers then have the choice of sending a child to the nurse to get some needed shut eye or waking the child or watching to ensure she doesn't fall out of her chair. Every year I taught I had at least one child who came to school so exhausted he had to be sent to the nurse to catch up on sleep. 

The less obvious reaction is a child who becomes more hyper as the day progresses. These children become so active they find it impossible to learn or behave after lunch. They are easily upset and often remember very little of their afternoon.

Other sleep deprived students have problems learning. They make mistakes and find it difficult to pay attention. Any problems created due to learning differences come out in full force when the child is tired. The dysgraphic child, who can with effort and concentration produce a readable sentence, suddenly writes with chicken scratches. The dyslexic child finds it impossible to read or comprehend. The ADHD child is totally unable to focus - even with medication. Usually the younger the child the more reactive the response to lack of sleep.

But, the parent responds, I can't get my child to go to sleep at night. There are a number of things to do to help you child get the shut eye she needs. Have a routine every night. Ban TV or electronic devices at least an hour before bed.  In fact, after dinner avoid all stimulating activities. (I know some children participate in sports that go way beyond bedtime. Parents need to form groups to deal with sports organizations about late elementary school night games.) Make sure the bedroom is a comfortable temperature. Keep the house quiet after a child has gone to bed. That means older siblings and adults have to be aware and considerate of the loudness of music, phone calls, computers, or conversations. 

If a child is on medications that make it difficult to sleep, talk to the pediatrician. If a young child has a day packed with too many activities, cut back. I am sure most adults know the feeling of being so tired one can't get to sleep. On the other hand, all children need some physical activity, preferably outdoors, so try to insure your child doesn't spend most days totally inside. Remember  "A well spent day brings happy sleep." -   Leonardo Da Vinci

Some children are worriers and some family situations promote worry. Try to help a child understand that it isn't his job to worry about adult problems. Get help if your family is being overwhelmed by such problems.

Everyone has a late night now and then. It is a continuous lack of sleep that exacerbates school problems. If your child is really having difficulty at school, remember to check how much sleep they are getting. Ten or eleven hours of sleep can make a world of difference in your child's world.

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