Sleep Deprivation for Children Called a Major Health Crisis

Jan 30, 2020

Two University of South Carolina pediatricians have recommendations for parents to help get their kids more, and better quality, sleep.
Credit File (CC0 1.0/Pigsels)

Recent research has found that 75 percent of teens, and many younger children, don't get enough sleep.  This phenomenon has been called a major health crisis, and a pair of University of South Carolina pediatricians agree.  

Dr. Peter Loper listed good nutrition, clean water and a safe environment as fundamental human needs.  And he added proper sleep to the list as well.   Serious consequences can result from children's not getting enough sleep, he said.  "Chronic sleep deprivation - not getting enough sleep consistently - is corelated with obesity, with insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and a number of mental health issues, specifically depression.  And in our adolescents, it's a risk factor for suicide.  So the bottom line as it relates to sleep is, it's a fundamental human necessity, and the less sleep you get, the shorter your life will be."

Some of the reasons children and teens get less sleep these days include heavier homework loads,  more extracurricular activies and a lack of a set bedtime routine, a very important factor in getting more sleep.  In recent years, another big factor in sleeplessness has emerged: screens of computers, cell phones, tablets and electronic games.  Dr. Trey Brown said that the light from these screens simulates sunlight to the brain: "Anything with a screen on it actually emits a blue light wave frequency, and that sends a message through our retinas to the brain that it's time to be awake, by knocking back the body's signal to release melatonin."  Melatonin is "necessary to entrain your normal circadian rhythm, which is when you want to go to sleep, when you want to wake up," said Brown.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has established guidelines for the amount of sleep children should have, said Brown.  "Thirteen-to 18-year olds need between 8 and 10 hours of sleep a night.  Kids six to 12, more in the 9-12 hour range.  Three-to five-year-olds need anywhere from 10-13, and even more for toddlers and infants." 

Loper added that quality of sleep is just as important as quantity, and that quality is disrupted by electronic devices.  He suggested how parents can help their kids with both kinds.  "Make sure that your child has a consistent bedtime routine.  Make sure that there are no electronics of any kind allowed in the bedroom.  No TVs.  Cell phones should be elsewhere outside the bedroom.  Tablets, computers, even if the devices are off, they emit an electromagnetic field that can disrupt our sleep cycle, and it can inbibit that deep, delta wave sleep."

It's normal as teens age for them to want to stay up later and sleep in later, and Loper said the American Academy of Pediatrics has recognized this reality "and it was really advocating for middle schools and high schools to delay the start time of school in response to what we understand about adolescents' and children's cleep cycles."  

Some schools around the country, including some in South Carolina, are adopting the idea, said Brown.  "Lexington-Richland 5, where my kids attend, each school's start time, from elementary to middle to high, has been gradually a little bit later."

But Loper is frustrated that some people think a pill can fix any problem, including children's sleep issues, and that's just not so.  "There's never gonna be a pill that really fixes sleep.  They may increase the quantity of sleep, but at the expense, oftentimes, of quality."   Some over the counter medications that may help children sleep longer, he said, also inhibit the brain from getting into the deep, renewing, delta wave sleep.  And any medication, even if it contains melatonin, he said, should only be used temporarily, not as a routine method of ensuring the child is getting sleep. 

Both Brown and Loper recommended no screens and a consistent bedtime routine as the best medicine for children's sleep, and their overall health.