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Sufficient sleep is essential for healthy minds and bodies

When my younger son was a junior in high school, his packed schedule left appallingly insufficient time for a basic human need:sleep.

He was taking four advanced placement classes, played sports, and was co-captain of his school’s mock trial team, a training ground for future lawyers. His days began with a 6:55 a.m. “zero period,” and extended well past midnight with bleary-eyed homework sessions.

While I applauded his ambition, I was constantly worried — despite his reassurances — that he had taken on too much.

One day he decided to take a nap and asked me to help him awaken by a certain time so he could study for an upcoming history test. After he remained zonked through several alarms and gentle nudges, I tried a slightly more assertive wakeup call.

Suddenly, he sat bolt-upright in bed and blurted, “In the 18th century!” He then fell back, asleep again before he hit the pillow. Later he recalled none of it, but guessed which expected test question his overtaxed brain had unconsciously answered.

I know many other parents who have also agonized over the competing pressures and distractions that conspire to rob our children of sleep. We have good reason to worry, for there’s mounting evidence that sufficient sleep is essential for healthy minds and bodies, and that not enough z-time can be devastating.

We Americans are particularly poor sleepers. A poll by the nonprofit National Sleep Foundation found that 59% of sixth- through eighth-graders and 87% of high school students in the United States were getting less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights. A quarter of American teens reported falling asleep in class regularly.

Another study by Boston College in 2011 found that out of 50 countries, the United States has the highest share of students whose academic performance suffers due to poor sleep.

Scientists have begun to sound alarms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers chronic insufficient sleep a public health epidemic that increases rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, depression and other ills. Studies have shown that absent adequate rest each night our brains don’t produce enough of the antioxidants that fight off the toxic stuff built up during our hours of wakefulness.

Adolescents are particularly at risk. They are “pathologically sleepy,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. As a result, our zombified teens are prone to physical and mental health problems, increased chances of car accidents, and declining academic performance, the group reports.

“This is an under-recognized issue,” said Dr. Jay Puangco, service chief of Hoag’s Voltmer Sleep Center. “We have this belief in America that people who succeed don’t sleep.”
Instead, he said, “We’re setting our kids up for failure.”

Experts such as Puangco point to many complex contributing factors, including heavy homework loads, extracurricular activities, after-school jobs, and the overuse of technology. Many advocate for parents to limit kids’ access to electronic devices, including cell phones, computers, tablets and television.

Another factor is increasingly being targeted as a culprit in kids’ sleeplessness: early school start times.

Many organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Sleep Foundation, have gone on record supporting a nationwide move to later school times.

The AAP, for instance, recently recommended that schools start classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m., noting that once kids hit puberty, their sleep cycles shift later and they find it difficult to fall asleep before 11 p.m. Early school start times quite literally subvert teens’ biological demands.

It’s an issue long championed by U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who has over the past 16 years sponsored related legislation. Her latest bill, introduced late last month, would direct the Department of Education to study and report to Congress on the relationship between school start times and adolescent health, well-being, and performance.

Parents, at this point, are no doubt bewildered.

We are repeatedly bombarded with messaging that our kids need to step up their academic performance. Teachers race through lessons, pile on homework, and are forced to administer test after test to our assessment-weary kids.

Coaches expect a slavish devotion to sports. Impressive extracurricular activities, we are told, are necessary for those looming college applications. And rather than limiting our children’s exposure to electronic media, our education system is increasingly integrating technology in learning. What’s more, some kids need after-school jobs to help their families make do.

It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to realize that sleep often becomes the first casualty when push meets shove.

Obviously, we’re not going to stop encouraging our kids to stretch themselves and strive for excellence. But we must also devote more care and attention to the overlooked, undervalued need for sleep. Puangco noted that sleep deprivation in childhood often leads to a lifelong pattern of poor sleep habits that threaten health, workplace effectiveness and quality of life well into adulthood.
Parents must strive to strike a realistic balance with their children’s schedules, he said, and communicate openly and honestly with them about the importance of quality rest.

But the discussion shouldn’t end there. We parents have long been counseled to ensure our kids get adequate sleep. It’s time for our institutions of learning to become more cooperative partners in making that happen.