By Wayne Caswell, a cofounder of Intelligent Sleep
Summer vacation is about to end, and the new school year is upon us, so I urge everyone with children or grandchildren to read and share this article. As I modeled in The Economic Value of Sleep, that can be worth millions of dollars in lifelong earnings and healthcare savings. It can also be a lifesaver, literally.
The research is in, and studies show that sleep duration and quality has a profound impact on health, safety and performance; but well over half of adults don’t sleep well enough, and a third sleep less than 6 hours/night when 7-9 is recommended. It’s much worse with adolescents since 70-90% don’t get enough sleep. The problem is now so bad that the CDC called insufficient sleep “a public health epidemic.”
UPDATE: The CDC just issued a press release saying, “Most US middle and high schools start the school day too early,” and suggested that later start times are important if students are to get enough sleep.
How Sleep Affects School Performance
Getting enough quality sleep at the right times is incredibly important to a child’s IQ development and learning ability, and it affects many attributes important to their performance in school and life. These included their alertness, attention, behavior, concentration, creativity, decision-making, emotions, focus, health, motivation, problem solving, risk taking, test scores, and working memory.
Studies also show that sleep deficiency alters activity in some parts of the brain, leading to problems controlling behavior, getting along with others, or coping with change, as well as depression, emotional mood swings, lower grades, stress, risky sexual behavior, alcohol or substance abuse, and even suicide.
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Consider the economic impact of good sleep for yourself AND your children. In the computer model I created to estimate that value, I used conservative assumptions to estimate a lifetime impact of over $8 million, but I started with a young adult graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree and starting their career at $50K/year salary. The estimate would have been far more if I had started the model earlier, say with newborns or infants, because that’s when their brains and IQ are developing fastest.
As a parent planning for college, think of how better grades can result in scholarships that save you money and improve your retirement position. Or think of the impact improved school performance can have on your child’s career options, starting salary, lifetime earning capacity, and their ability to contribute to the economy and tax base as more boomers retire and leave the workforce. Whether you prioritize sleep can determine how well-positioned your children will be to be caregivers to you when you need their help.
How Sleep Affects Sports Performance
Professional sports teams are starting to prioritize sleep and hire sleep consultants, because they’ve seen how it gives them a competitive edge. The same can apply to your kids. Besides the attributes cited for school performance, good sleep also improves their endurance, reaction times, and recovery times.
When Stanford University, which has always been on the leading edge of sleep science, applied that knowledge to their basketball team in a scientific study, they attributed good sleep to a 9.2% improvement in three-point shooting and 9% improvement in free throws. Similar results have been found in all sports, including football, baseball, tennis, and cycling. So if your child wants a competitive advantage, have him or her read These Famous Athletes Rely On Sleep For Peak Performance.
How Sleep Affects Physical Health
It’s said that America’s sleep crisis is “making us sick, fat, and stupid,” so realize just how important sleep is to your child’s overall physical health. It helps the body maintain an important balance of hormones, including the growth hormone that boosts muscle mass, helps repair cells and tissues, and also plays a role in puberty and fertility.
Sleepy students are more likely to be overweight or obese, because sleep affects hormones that make you feel full (leptin) or hungry (ghrelin). Without proper rest, kids just feel hungrier and are attracted to foods with high levels of sugar or carbohydrates. Sleep also affects how their bodies reacts to insulin, the hormone that controls blood glucose (sugar) levels.
It’s scary enough that two thirds of adults (69%) are overweight or obese, but 1 of 3 children is also overweight and 18% are obese. That’s up from just 5% in 1980 and symptomatic of an obesity epidemic. To do nothing about this is to sentence these kids to death or a life of pain and discomfort, because research shows that kids obese by age 10 will likely die 12-19 years earlier and with diminished quality of life.
By the time children reach adulthood, insufficient sleep greatly increases their risks for all sorts of health conditions. These include:
- 5 times higher risk of developing Depression
- 4 times higher risk of Stroke
- 3 times higher risk of catching a Cold due to Impaired Immunity
- 62% higher risk of Breast Cancer
- 48% higher risk of Heart Disease
- 27% higher risk of Type 2 Diabetes
- Alzheimer’s Disease (sleep-associated, but stats uncertain)
How Sleep Affects Young Drivers
1 in 5 fatal accidents are caused by drowsy driving, and mostly by teens. Their driver’s license gives them new freedoms just as they’re beginning to feel their oats, but their quick reaction times can’t compensate for over-confidence or a lack of judgment that comes with experience. Combine that with their social tendency to have others in the car or to use the phone while driving, and then add sleep deficiency and you have a potentially lethal mix.
Studies show that drowsy driving is like drunk driving and often worse. National studies show that the lack of sleep is responsible for over 100,000 car accidents each year, including over 1,550 deaths and $12.5 billion in monetary damages. That’s the equivalent of 387 Metro-North train derailments, or more than one a day, but it may be just the tip of the iceberg.
According to a 2002 National Sleep Foundation poll, young adults 18-29 are much more likely to drive drowsy, at 71% versus 52% for older drivers 30-64 or 19% for those over 65. Keep these thoughts in mind as you’re on the road approaching oncoming traffic with no center divider. What are the chances some of those drivers are drowsy, or new teen drivers distracted and drowsy? And what might they do?
There’s a natural shift in chronotype as kids go through puberty and into adulthood. They become night owls and tend to stay up later – a result of social media, homework, and lax parental monitoring – but that makes it difficult to adhere to old school start times that were set for the convenience of working parents rather than for the best learning environment. [School districts that are starting high school later are showing noticeable improvements in attendance and grades and fewer car accidents.]
Teen night owls often sleep late on weekends to catch up on their “sleep debt,” but while that’s helpful, it’s almost never a long-term solution. It’s far better to avoid developing that debt in the first place.
Tips for Improving Sleep
Parents can help most by prioritizing and monitoring sleep, explaining the need and benefits of sleep, and leading by example. 70 other tips for better sleep are divided into six categories of improvement.
1. The Bedroom Environment – Sleep experts say you should keep the room dark, cool, and quiet. Controlling the amount & quality of artificial light, including limiting screen time from electronics, is especially important for regulating the body’s internal clock (or circadian rhythm). We already have too much artificial light and sleep about 2 hours less now than before Tomas Edison’s light bulb 150 years ago, and it’s only getting worse with energy-saving bulbs and electronics that have too much blue-light spectrum.
2. Daily Habits – View sleep as one of the three pillars of health, with the other two being exercise and sleep; and know that daytime exercise, meditation, and other stress relievers help promote nighttime sleep. Develop a routine of waking up at the same time every day and calculate bedtime based on sleep recommendations by age, allowing for daytime naps if needed. But don’t expect miracles overnight. It takes an average of 21 days to break an old habit or form a new one, and your role as parent is to help your children get past that and develop good sleep habits.
3. What You Eat – There are four main minerals that aid in sleeping (Tryptophan, Magnesium, Calcium, and Vitamin B6), and while they can be taken as supplements, it’s always better to get them naturally in your diet. Likewise, there are certain foods to avoid, including fast food or anything difficult to digest. Avoid caffeine drinks after about 3pm, since caffeine interferes with sleep and has a 12-hour half-life.
4. Nightly Habits – Small children especially need a regular nighttime routine that may include bathing, reading and story telling. This helps them “learn” how to put eventually themselves down to sleep. Amazon.com lists several books that are good for getting children ready to sleep, including Goodnight Moon; Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site; The Goodnight Train; and more. Our son, who is now a band director, had his own routine in high school. He’d practice his t;umpet, at 10pm, and although that sometimes disturbed my own sleep when I had an early flight the next morning, I put up with it because it was how he got himself sleepy. Journaling, especially as a way of remembering daily accomplishments, is also a good way to wind down, and for the same reason, so is prayer if that’s your thing.
5. In-Bed Techniques – Lying in bed awake is no fun. Help your kids fall asleep as quickly and soundly as possible by decreasing interruptions and focusing their attention on something other than trying to fall asleep. This might include reflecting on the things they love, what they’re thankful for, or visualization, breathing, meditation and relaxation techniques that can all help but take practice.
6. Devices & Apps – Along with advanced technology are phone apps that promote sleep. Even though I normally advise against electronics in the bedroom, if they help promote sleep, I’m all for it. That can include white noise machines or relaxing soundtracks with binaural beats. Just be sure your child isn’t staying up using social media on their phone, and be mindful of other ways electronics interfere with sleep.
The Sleep Cycle
Understanding what happens during typical sleep stages, and how they cycle over about 90 minutes, can help you schedule naps and develop routines that work best for both you and your kids. For example, avoid waking them during deep sleep.
Because one role of sleep is to parse memories from the day, decide what’s important, and save it as long-term memories, studying at night is most helpful. Sleeping soon after that study session helps lock in what’s learned. Likewise, most people are their most creative in the morning, so you might encourage your children to work on their school projects early when they wake up on weekends.
Related Articles (on Modern Health Talk)
- The Need & Positive Effects of Restorative Sleep
- Sleep Statistics from Sleepless in America
- The Economic Value of a Good Night’s Sleep
- 70 Tips for Improving Sleep
- How Light from Electronics Effects Sleep
About the Author
Wayne Caswell also writes about health reform, the future of healthcare, and tech solutions for independent living on his blog at mHealthTalk.com, with the objective of keeping seniors safe and healthy in their own homes and avoiding the high cost of institutional care. His perspectives come as a retired IBM technologist and market strategist and as a digital home consultant, broadband evangelist, futurist, and consumer advocate. He has no formal medical training but served hospital accounts at IBM and is married to a registered nurse.