Is Your Child Getting Enough Sleep? New School Year, Pandemic Could Be Problematic

Lack of sleep and sleepiness in children and teenagers can be a red flag for mental health issues like depression

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We call ourselves #TeamNoSleep here on NBC 5 Today. But that's not a good thing to brag about, according to the experts.

There’s a warning doctors have for parents when it comes to children getting enough sleep, especially parents who have sent their kids back to school this month.

“Sleepiness is a medical symptom. And a lot of people don’t appreciate that,” said Dr. David Brown, a sleep psychologist for Children's Health.

He said the shift back to in-person classes after a year of virtual learning can potentially worsen the problems students already had in sleeping, especially with the added pandemic stress. With virtual classes, then in-person for last semester, a summer vacation, and now back to in-person learning -- the circadian rhythm in children hasn’t had a chance to find balance.

“Sleep schedules actually went out the window. We’ve had well over a year where schedules have been erratic at best,” Brown said. “It’s going to be a learning process again to get back into school and get back into a routine of getting up and ready for school, attending school all day and staying alert in classes.”

Sleep problems in kids can be a serious situation. Brown says 30% of children, in general, are experiencing some sort of sleep issue.

In children with psychiatric illnesses, 50% have sleep problems. In children on the spectrum, it's 90%.

Sleep deprivation and issues are also red flags for depression. Lack of sleep can also lead to other mental health problems like anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Teenagers are most at risk.

Brown says he's seen those things increase substantially since March 2020.

He said sleep deprivation will also make it harder for students to learn as they navigate another school year in the pandemic.

“If you’re not sleeping well, it doesn’t matter – everything is going to be much more difficult to deal with,” Brown said. “Sleep is critically important for learning. And young children learn at a rate that will never again be achieved in the entire life cycle. It is so important for young children to get an adequate amount of sleep so they can optimize their functioning, not only during the day but potentially the rest of their lives."

So how much sleep does your child need?

Doctors say elementary kids need about 10 to 12 hours of sleep. By age 10 or 11, parents should aim for children getting about 10 hours of sleep.

Teenagers should aim for 7 to 9 hours but this age group often struggles with sleeping very little during the week and trying to “make up for it” on the weekends.

“A single night of good sleep helps but it’s not going to make up for chronic sleep loss,” Brown said. “This is a pattern that I call ‘yo-yoing’ – a pattern where they get sleep deprived during the school week and try to catch up on the weekends. Those two days are not an adequate amount of sleep to make up for the previous chronic sleep deprivation.”

Here are some key things doctors say parents need to keep an eye out for in all ages right now:

  • Hard for the child to wake up in the morning
  • Child is sleeping in the car, bus or class
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of interest
  • Moodiness
  • Behavior issues
  • Hyperactivity (especially in young children)

“Little children often don’t say, ‘Hey, I’m sleepy I need to go take a nap.’ They get fussy and irritable and they may even get hyperactive. Some of the hyperactivity or behavioral issues that we see in young children could be a manifestation of poor sleep,” Brown said.

Some discussion on social media has recommended that teachers allow young children who have fallen asleep in class to continue napping. But Brown says, if teachers see issues like this happen every day at school, it should be reported to parents.

“A nice teacher would allow their child to sleep in the class, I think that’s fine. But it kind of begs the question – if that child may be normally alert but is now falling asleep one day in class, that would be good to let that child have a nap. But if it’s a pervasive problem, every day they come in and have a hard time staying awake especially in the morning classes, that’s an indication of a more chronic problem,” he said. “A nap might help them get through the day but that really doesn’t address the problem. It would be similar to a kid with a chronically high fever or a cough, and you give them Tylenol but don’t look any further.”

Bottom line – Brown said parents need to check in with their kids right now and talk to them about taking sleep seriously. Work with them on setting up a sleep schedule and look into lowering that daily screen time as a start toward better sleep.

“I would hope as a culture and a society, we would start making sleep a real priority and not something that we can get when we can and give up when we have to," Dr. Brown said.

If you need guidance for your child, consult your pediatrician or visit the National Sleep Foundation website for more information.

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