Only half of US kids get enough sleep, which impairs their ability to flourish.
Only half of children in the United States routinely get enough sleep each night, and this has significant effects on their academic performance and social, and emotional well-being. A comprehensive study analyzed responses from parents or caregivers of 49,050 children, 6 to 17 years old, who were part of the 2016-2017 cohort of the National Survey of Children’s Health. They were queried about how many nights of sleep a randomly selected child in their household slept on an average weeknight. These results were then correlated with measures of “flourishing”, such as interest in learning new things, interest in succeeding in school, and emotional self-regulation.
The researchers sounded the alarm on the chronic and additive effects of insufficient sleep. Earlier studies suggest insufficient sleep leads to physical health consequences, such as lowered immunity, obesity, increased risk of developing sub-clinical depression, and poor ability to regulate mood, attention, and decreased academic performance.
The Cascade Effect of Under-Sleeping:
These factors all trigger each other in a cascade effect. A child with less sleep will have less energy to engage in physical activity, and poor sleep is linked to higher levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin, as well as poorer ability to manage stress hormones like cortisol. Higher levels of cortisol and ghrelin lead to cravings for ultra-processed food, like candy, and less motivation to exercise.
Poor ability to manage attention and mood can lead to procrastination with schoolwork, frantic cramming late at night, and less ability to resist distractions. Younger children, who don’t have the academic pressures of adolescents, will find it harder to focus on homework.
Poor ability to manage mood will also mean that valuable self-regulation skills are not learned in school, the chances of having a negative interaction with a teacher or classmate will go up, and what started as just one bad day might turn into a lifelong attitude of disliking school.
The Intangible Effects:
It’s not just about focus or mood management. It’s also about having children feel a sense of alert, engaged interest in their academic and emotional lives. Some of the factors that the researchers identified as “flourishing” included showing interest and curiosity in learning new things, caring about doing well in school, and developing self-regulation for use during times of stress.
These are the markers that we can’t fully measure because we don’t know what “would have happened.” Once we’re doing homework with a child, don’t we want that homework time to be sparking a lifelong interest in the topic? Or if it’s not intrinsically motivating to that child, we want her to be developing a self-regulation skill such as task-persistence. Teaching a child to enjoy a job well-done, even if said job isn’t terribly engaging (memorizing multiplication tables comes to mind!) is also a life-skill we want to foster. But if homework time is something for an exhausted, burned out parent and equally exhausted child to just get through, we’re kind of missing the point.
What Do We Model?
The American Academy of Pediatrics cited digital media usage as the most easily modifiable factor in the study. Other risk factors, such as being in a home subject to adverse childhood experiences, or the presence of an individual with mental health challenges in the home, were less amenable to direct intervention.
In my most recent Targeted Parenting class, parents were talking about what they wanted to do with the extra hour due to the changing clock. People had all sorts of ideas – exercising, finding the time to tackle a project, or as one person put it “Netflix already has that covered, let’s face it!”
I suggested that sleep should be the number one priority. Setting an “off” time for digital media use for the entire family – which might mean blocking the wi-fi signal to the house or locking smartphones in a drawer – could be a key factor in helping children learn how to wind down before bed. They’re only going to learn this if we model it. If kids see that their parents know that any text that comes in after a certain time is just not all that crucial, and can be responded to tomorrow, that videos of dancing cats or makeup tutorials can wait till morning, they’ll learn how to prioritize themselves.
Let’s face it – parents and kids are not much different. When we’re low on sleep, we’re also low on motivation. It’s just that much harder to hit the gym and it’s that much harder to resist the call of chocolate chip cookies in favor of quinoa. And when we’re low on sleep, we’re also low on self-regulation. It’s harder to resist yelling, or responding more harshly than we meant to, and it’s harder to make homework or dinner time fun and motivating.
Poor Sleep Leads to Child and Parental Burnout:
I challenged the parents in my Targeted Parenting class to track their own behavior (we usually track kid’s behavior!) and their sleep. Here’s what one mom had to say.
I know that when I’m “on” as a mother, I can find a toddler meltdown amusing, instead of unbearable. I can stay calm, attune to her emotional state, and figure out what’s triggering her. Then I can respond in a supportive fashion. It doesn’t always work, but I get to give myself a little “Good Mommy” sticker in my brain, and that feels good. Same with teenage drama and middle school stubbornness. I can make homework time fun, put a positive spin on the “gross” dinner I’m asking them to eat, and hurry them along without feeling like a drill sergeant. But until I started tracking, I couldn’t believe how my “On” days correlated with the weeks where I got more sleep!
Those “Off” days when Mom can’t regulate her own behavior and ends up being harsh with her kids contribute to guilt, and guilt can lead to parental burnout. (Read more about parental burnout here, here, and here.) Sleep is the foundation of mental health -let’s give our kids and ourselves that gift. Goodnight!