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Too Young To Be So Tired

From eDiets - The online diet, fitness, and healthy living resource

America is an overworked and under-slept nation, and parents are among the most sleep-deprived segment of the population. We Americans spend more hours working than residents of any industrialized nation. In order to keep up with the demands of work, of keeping the house going, spending time with the kids and taking a moment for ourselves, we steal time from sleep.

It starts with childbirth. Raising an infant is exhausting. On average, a parent of a new baby loses 400 to 750 hours of sleep during the first year! But the need for parental intervention doesn’t disappear the first year. A third of children ages one to four require some form of nighttime ministration.

Chronically sleep-deprived, parents are at risk of thinking that tiredness is a normal condition of life. But it’s not. Even small decrements from the eight-hour standard for adults can impair performance in the following days. Memory, learning, coordination, concentration, mood, ability to tolerate stress -- all are affected by sleep loss. But as bad as sleep deprivation is for adults, it’s an unfair burden to foist on kids, whose growth and learning -- and thus capacity for future performance -- hinges on adequate sleep.

Unfortunately, says Cornell University psychologist James B. Maas, Ph.D., young parents know nothing about the rules for good sleep. As a result, many kids today are struggling just to keep their eyes open. They’re not just falling asleep on the school bus, they’re having trouble keeping on task inside the classroom. When they’re not in a stupor they’re acting up and acting out... and often mistakenly diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder (ADD) and given stimulants.

Dr. Maas wants to set the record straight and let parents know that kids today need much more sleep than they are currently getting.

  • High school and college kids average 6.1 hours of sleep a night when they need 9.25 hours to be fully alert all day long the next day.

  • Kids are swilling stimulants like coffee and colas -- and sometimes amphetamines -- to keep themselves awake.

  • Behavioral problems among kids in middle school and high school significantly disappear when kids get more sleep.

  • Lack of sleep magnifies the effect of alcohol, with alarming results. One drink on five and a half hours sleep, reports Dr. Maas, has the same effect as six drinks on eight hours of sleep. “You have a young population learning to drive and experimenting with alcohol, a deadly combo. The greatest killer of teenagers is car accidents largely exacerbated by sleepiness.”

  • Sleep is critical to academic performance. It is also essential for performance on the athletic field, and for mood.

  • The sleep deprivation of today’s students is exacerbated by so-called yo-yo scheduling -- going to bed late during the week, but going to bed even later on the weekends. Lack of sleep on weekends delays the nightly secretion of melatonin, the sleep hormone. As a result, kids are “walking zombies” in the school corridors on Mondays. “Their bodies are in the classroom but their brains are jet-lagged, somewhere in London, and they never left home.” The delay in hormone secretion also keeps them from going to bed on time the next day, even though they are vastly sleep-deprived.
  • Motor skills are improved about 20 percent with sleep of adequate duration. Between the sixth and the eighth hour of sleep, the brain acts on calcium molecules, preserving motor skills newly acquired through practice.

  • When the schools in a community adopt later start times, allowing kids to get more sleep, behavioral problems plummet and performance in the classroom and on the playing field improves.

    You watch what your kids eat so why not make sure they get enough sleep?

Hara Estroff Marano is Editor-At-Large of Psychology Today magazine and Editor-In-Chief of Psychology Today's Blues Buster, a newsletter about depression. An award-winning writer on human behavior, Haras articles have appeared in publications including the New York Times, Smithsonian, Family Circle and The Ladies Home Journal. She lives in New York City.

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