A Little Bit of Extra Sleep Pays Off Big for Kids

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 15, 2012 -- Twenty-seven minutes. That's how much extra sleep a school-aged child needs per night to be brighter and more productive the following day.

According to a new study, kids who slept that extra amount each night were less impulsive, less easily distracted, and less likely to have temper tantrums or cry often and easily. By contrast, losing just shy of an hour's worth of sleep had the opposite effects on behavior and mood.

"Small changes in bedtime and daily routine could go a long way," says researcher Reut Gruber, PhD. She is an assistant professor of psychology at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Conversely, "one more video game and staying a little longer in a friend's house ... could add up and have a negative impact on the daytime functioning of healthy children."

The findings are published in the November issue of Pediatrics.

Sleepless in Grade School

Gruber's study included 34 kids aged 7 to 11 with no sleep, medical, behavior, or academic problems. The children's bedtimes were moved up or back an hour relative to their usual bedtimes for one week. Their daytime behaviors were rated by their teachers and parents at the end of the week. Children slept wearing a wristwatch-like device to monitor their activity and sleep.

Those kids who got 27.36 minutes more sleep per night showed improvements, while those who got less sleep did not.

Is this modest amount really enough?

"In daily life, if you think of the impact of short power naps, usually about 15 to 20 minutes during the day, you can see that this amount of sleep can have a significant positive impact on mood, attention, and well-being," says Gruber.

Most school-aged children go to bed later than 9 p.m., and 43% of boys ages 10 to 11 sleep less than the recommended amount each night, according to information in the new study.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, children aged 5 to 12 need 10 to 11 hours of sleep a night.

Yawning and drowsiness are not the only signs that a student is getting too little sleep, Gruber says. Other symptoms include hyperactivity, crankiness, impulsiveness, and a short attention span.

9 Steps for More Sleep

As parents know, most school-aged kids would do anything to stay up even just a little bit later each night. But implementing nine simple steps can help assure that your kids get the sleep they need and are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next day.

1. Lead by example. "Prioritize sleep in your daily choices," Gruber says.

2. Set a fixed bedtime and wake time. "The body adapts to falling asleep at a certain time, but only if the sleep schedule is relatively consistent, with no more than one hour of bedtime difference between school nights and weekends or holidays," she says.

3. Create a consistent, calm bedtime routine. "The ideal sleeping environment is quiet, dark, and cool in the evening, and well lit in the morning," Gruber says. "It is important that the sleeping environment should be associated with positive experiences and emotions and, therefore, parents should not use the bedroom or going to bed early as punishments." Along the same lines, TVs, computers, and cell phones should not be in the bedroom. "Internet use should be kept to a minimum in the evening."

4. Avoid heavy meals during the two hours before bedtime. "A small snack close to bedtime is acceptable, so that the child does not go to bed hungry," she says. Caffeine should also be avoided in the late afternoon and evening. This includes chocolate and soda.

5. No more naps. "Napping during the day may create difficulty in nighttime sleeping," she says.

6. Exercise regularly, as long as it is done during the day and not too close to bed, Gruber says.

7. Do homework earlier. Staying up later to finish homework is a no-no, says Nina Shapiro, MD. She is the director of pediatric otolaryngology at Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA. "If you have second- through sixth-graders staying up even an hour later each night to finish their homework, it has consequences."

The solution? Start homework earlier."This can be hard if a child has a full day at school, after-school activities, and working parents who like to have family dinner on the later side," she says. "Kids can get crunched, but something has got to give." This can be TV or computer time, an extracurricular activity, or simply trying to be more efficient with homework.

8. Start the bedtime routine earlier. Telling young kids their bedtime got moved up is a hard sell, Shapiro says. Instead, start the whole process 30 minutes earlier. This includes brushing teeth and reading a book to or with your child. "Reading a book is a great way to drift off to sleep."

Making the after-dinner routine more geared toward sleep makes sense, says Jeff Sapyta, PhD. He is a child psychologist at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. "It should be about slowing down, not speeding up."

9. Aim for 10 hours of sleep a night for 6- to 12-year-olds. There is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all sleep prescription for kids, but shooting for 10 hours a night is a good goal, Sapyta says. It will pay dividends. "We see a significant difference in how a child behaves in school and emotionally based on restricting or allowing more sleep in just one week."

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SOURCES: Gruber, R. Pediatrics, 2012, study received ahead of print. Reut Gruber, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Jeff Sapyta, PhD, child psychologist, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C. Nina Shapiro, MD, director, pediatric otolaryngology, Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA, Los Angeles. National Sleep Foundation: "Children and Sleep."

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