Sleep determines more about your child's waking hours than you might think.
My wife is amazed at our differences in sleep habits. I'm usually good for about 5-6 hours. She, however, has far healthier sleep habits and is able to step away from distractions at night like work responsibilities, tv, email, etc in order to get a night's sleep that allows her to be functional throughout the day. She's even able to do it without coffee, which she gave up for tea a few years back (insanity to me). The fact remains, however, that our lifestyle choices and the culture that we live in demand less and less sleep from us. Whether it's getting up early in the morning to run or staying up too late to watch the end of the World Series, we, as a culture, don't get enough sleep. How does this affect my 4-year old?
My wife and I are both working parents. While we both have some flexibility when it comes to work, there are a few nights a week where the time with our son just doesn't feel like enough. After picking him up from preschool, making dinner, finding time to play (he's really into Go Fish right now and beats me regularly), a bath and nighttime routine, I can feel his bedtime getting pushed farther and farther back. This can't possibly be harming him, we tell ourselves. After all, this is the precious family time we've looked forward to all day, right? An hour a night can't hurt. Heck, on the weekends, let him stay up even later. As it turns out, however, getting enough sleep has a profound affect on his brain development and will continue to do so for some time to come.
One study done at Tel Aviv University was able to demonstrate significant impairments in academic functioning in elementary school students after only depriving them of one hour of sleep for just 3 nights. The difference in their performance was as much as two full grade levels.
Another study done at Brown University looked at preschool aged kids who mearly shift their sleep patterns on the weekends. While the children were getting the same amount of sleep, the study was able to show that the greater the time shift on the weekends, the more impact it had on standardized IQ tests. Even one-hour shifts accounted for measurable impairments. A researcher at the University of Virginia went so far as to compare the effects of chronic sleep disorders to that of lead exposure when it comes to children's cognitive development. Others link chronic sleep deprivation to obesity and ADHD.
The impact is even felt in high school, especially since teenagers are such chronic night owls. Researchers at the University of Minnesota were able to show that even 15 extra minutes of sleep can have an affect on a teenager's academic performance. Shouldn't be too much of a surprise as teenage brains are far from fully developed (see my blog on teen development).
Kids that are overly tired have difficulty remembering what they learned. They are more inattentive in class and can be more impulsive (sound like a frequently used diagnosis to anyone?). Furthermore, kids who lose sleep don't have the time needed to process what they've learned during the night making the information harder to retrieve or risk not having it "stored" in their brain at all.
So where does this leave us as over-scheduled families? Have a sleep routine and stick to it. Try to be as consistent as possible with younger children. Engage in a conversation with your teen to negotiate appropriate bedtimes that can be agreed upon. There's a way too much going on in their brains during sleep to risk cutting this time short.
The studies I mentioned in this article were published in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's excellent book Nurture Shock which I highly recommend picking up. Now turn off your computer and get some sleep!