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," saidDr. 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
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