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Junior insomniacs: Sleep-deprived kids

Sleep deprivation is not just for new moms or stressed-out parents. Plenty of kids don’t get enough shut-eye, leaving them ill-equipped to handle the rigors of life. Can these junior insomniacs turn their sleep habits around before adulthood?

Insomnia in kids

When a child is tossing and turning instead of snoozing and dreaming, she typically wakes in the morning struggling to face the day. Childhood insomnia is more common than many think but there could be a solution to this nagging condition.

A sleepy generation

Most parents are at least familiar with exhaustion, but few realize how many kids don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis. “[A] study by Boston College revealed that the United States has the highest number of sleep-deprived students in the world,” says Dr. Robert Oexman, director o the Sleep to Live Institute. “Seventy three percent of 9- and 10-year-olds and 80 percent of 13- and 14-year-olds in the U.S. are identified by their teachers as being adversely affected by sleep deprivation.” Most children fall far short of the 8 to 9 1/4 hours of recommended sleep per day, leaving them functioning at a less-than-optimal level.

Read about why insomnia isn’t just for mom >>

Causes of junior insomnia

Kids definitely need time to recharge, especially while trying to maintain their busy schedules. A lack of truly restful sleep could result in nodding off in class, shortened attention spans and a compromised immune system. While there are many causes of sleeplessness, Dr. Oexman believes that three main factors significantly contribute to insomnia in children — electronics in the bedroom, competing activities and changes in melatonin production. “[B]ringing electronics in the bedroom can decrease sleep time, lower test scores and even increase the risk of depression,” says Dr. Oexman. “The bedroom should remain a ‘tech-free’ zone!” Furthermore, parents need to find a healthy balance between scheduling commitments and opportunities for sleep while respecting the fact that a child’s circadian rhythm changes with maturity.

Check out these tricks for keeping kids’ schedule active but balanced >>

Melatonin: The body’s sleep aid

Often in desperation, parents will turn to prescriptions or, more commonly, over-the-counter (OTC) medications to help their children sleep. While these may provide short-term relief, the focus should be on achieving restful sleep, naturally. “Melatonin is something that our body produces naturally each night — it helps us to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night,” says Dr. Oexman. “As with all OTC medications, melatonin should be used for short-term treatment only — and only after behavioral modification techniques have failed. If your child can’t sleep but they’re playing video games and watching TV right before bed — the answer isn’t melatonin. Change the behavior first and remove the electronics from the bedroom.”

Find out how sleep hormone improves sleep disruption in children with autism >>

Practical tips

Dr. Oexman provides the following tips for parents of children dealing with insomnia:

  • Behavioral modification is the best solution for adolescent insomnia.
  • Keep strict bedtimes. Establishing a bedtime routine is helpful (warm bath, reading a book etc.)
  • No staying up late to do homework. Establish a cut-off time.
  • Keep electronics out of the bedroom — including the cell phone!
  • Do not allow your kids to consume caffeine — soda, tea or energy drinks. Caffeine consumed past 12:00 p.m. can keep children up later that night.

For more information on dealing with junior insomnia, visit the National Sleep Foundation or the Sleep to Live Institute.

More about sleep challenges

Study: Morning light exposure affects teens’ sleep patterns
Encouraging healthy sleep habits in your teen
Why teens sleep patterns change

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