Resetting kids' sleep clocks is imperative for physical, academic health

During the summer, like many parents, Kelly Allen Gray relaxes the strict bedtime rules she lays down during the school year for sons Ryland, 8, and Sterling, 19.

"By about midnight, when we've taken all the noise we can take, we tell them, 'I don't care what you do, but please just don't make any more noise,'" says the Fort Worth mom, who is executive director of United Riverside Rebuilding Corp.

With no pressing schedules, she lets them spend long, lazy evenings hanging with the family or friends, watching TV or playing computer games. Not until two weeks ago, with classes preparing to resume at Our Mother of Mercy Catholic School this week, did Gray push Ryland back to the regular grind: Bed by 8:30, lights out by 9.

"It will take us until Labor Day to be officially back in the swing of things," she says. "Those first couple of weeks, it's a battle of wills."

Parents everywhere can relate: Of all the back-to-school rituals, getting kids back on track sleepwise may be one of the toughest, especially as they grow older. You're competing with friends, cellphones, computers, 24/7 entertainment, daylight that lingers past many kids' bedtime long into fall and even, especially with teenagers, body clocks that naturally prefer later wake-up times.

Because body clocks aren't set on an exact 24-hour rhythm, "we all have a propensity to migrate to a later bedtime and a later wake-up time when allowed," says John Herman, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and a sleep disorders specialist. "So, given this inclination, most children over the summer, unless they're restricted by their parents, will go to bed later and wake up later. Then, the first day of school is when the rubber hits the road, because the body clock settings now conflict with requirements to wake up in time for school."

But tardy bells -- and school buses -- wait for no child. So parents need to help ease the transition. And with school starting for most of us next week, that means starting as soon as possible.

Why is sleep so important for kids anyway? A growing amount of research shows that insufficient sleep in kids and teens is linked to a slew of problems in school and out, including lowered grades, behavioral and mood disturbances, increased illnesses, even risk of obesity and substance abuse, says Dr. James Maas, a Cornell University professor and sleep expert whose 1998 book, Power Sleep, was a New York Times bestseller.

Maas points to a number of studies, such as one at Brown University. Researcher Mary Carskadon studied students' sleep habits and found that those who slept 17-33 minutes more than their peers each night increased their performance by an entire letter grade.

A sleep study at Cornell found a significant correlation between total amount of sleep and academic performance.

Finally, additional studies have shown that adolescents who sleep nine hours have significantly better grades than those who sleep six, have fewer learning difficulties, report fewer illnesses and are tardy less often, Maas says.

OK, I'm convinced, but how much sleep do kids really need?

As parents, we often obsess over our babies' sleep schedules and our toddlers' willingness to nap, then relax as they settle into more predictable sleep patterns as preschoolers. But children need lots more sleep than adults, well into their teenage years.

Grade-schoolers ages 5-12 need at least 10 to 11 hours nightly, according to the National Sleep Foundation. And even teenagers need at least nine hours.

How do I know if my kids are getting enough sleep?

Don't wait until school performance suffers; behavior is usually a clear indicator long before that, says Dr. John Saito, a Fort Worth pediatric pulmonologist and a sleep expert at Cook Children's Pediatric Sleep Laboratory. If your child consistently seems excessively tired, complains about wanting to nod off in class or sleeps through several wake-up calls, he probably needs more shuteye. Conversely, some sleep-deprived kids, especially younger ones, may be hyperactive or excessively moody.

And, of course, the same schedule doesn't work for every child. About 10-20 percent of children are natural "larks," Herman says, who wake up early and get sleepy soon after dinner. They're the ones who have no problems getting up for that early swim practice and rarely fight you on bedtime. A second, larger group -- perhaps half of all kids -- may prefer a later sleep schedule but can simply tough it out and will get back on track within a few weeks.

But that still leaves a sizeable percentage of children who struggle all school year, Herman says. Some may simply be groggy in the first class or two; extreme cases consistently miss early classes or even fall asleep at school. Those kids especially need more structure around their sleeping habits.

So how do I get them to sleep more?

Ideally, kids will keep the same bedtime year-round, even on weekends: Take the required number of hours and count back from the time they need to be up to make that first class, and that's bedtime. A 10-year-old who needs to be up at 6:30 to catch carpool should hear "lights out" no later than 8:30 p.m., and possibly as early as 7:30 p.m.

But this is the real world, and if your kids have enjoyed a later bedtime all summer, there's still time to get them back on schedule. That means instituting bedtime rules again starting now. (Just like we can adjust to jet lag in a day or two, many children can adjust their sleep schedule in less than a week, Herman says.)

Some kids may adjust more quickly if you continue to let them stay up past their bedtime for a few nights but start waking them up on the school schedule. That will help them get tired earlier in the evening and move them more naturally into the desired routine rather than just fighting the new, earlier bedtime.

Can't they just catch up on the weekends?

Well, sort of. Say your child undersleeps an hour or two every night. By Saturday, he owes a "sleep debt" of at least five hours. If you allow him to stay up till midnight and sleep till noon on the weekend, he may feel better in the short term, but he further disrupts his circadian rhythms. Unable to fall asleep at the regular bedtime Sunday night, he starts out the new week even worse off.

A better stopgap for teens who just can't fit in enough sleep during the regular week: Encourage a 20-minute nap after school and before dinner, Maas says. That's just enough to give them an energy boost, but not so long that they'll wake up groggy or disturb that night's sleep.

S ounds great, but just changing bedtimes and allowing naps isn't enough for my kid. What else can I do?

Start by fixing their "sleep environment." Consider removing TVs, computers and other devices from the bedroom and putting them in the family room, so there's less temptation and children associate their bedrooms only with sleep, Maas suggests. Veto caffeine -- including chocolate -- after about 2 p.m., and keep lights low in the evening, especially in the bedroom.

Even if you can't or won't remove electronics, set stricter limits about using devices after dinner, Herman says. The secretion of melatonin, which promotes sleep, is blocked by the kind of bright light that's emitted from TVs, computers, video games and cellphones, he says. His prescription: Nothing with a screen within two hours of bedtime. Encourage kids to read, talk with family, listen to (quiet) music, pursue a low-key hobby or take a warm bath instead -- any activity that helps the body wind down and creates the kind of ready-for-bed routine that most of us insisted our kids follow as babies and toddlers, Saito says.

Then, in the morning, expose your child to bright, natural light immediately upon waking. The light helps regulate your body clock and alerts you that it's time to wake up, Maas says.

But there just aren't enough hours in the day for my child to do homework, play sports and sleep, too. What do you suggest?

Tough love, the experts say. Especially as children enter their teen years, they may have so many competing priorities -- sports practice, after-school jobs, demanding homework and burgeoning social schedules -- that sleep takes low priority, and they find it impossible to squeeze in more than six or seven hours of sleep a night.

That's when parents have to step in and help make the tough choices -- strictly limiting time spent on social-networking sites, or encouraging a teen to drop an activity or two, Maas says.

He flatly discourages teens from holding jobs unless the family has a real economic need: "Your [child's] time is better spent studying and improving their academic performance. The time [jobs] take away from sleep and other activities is very damaging."

Finally, value sleep yourself, Maas says. Kids learn by example, and if you're on Facebook and watching cable until midnight every night, they're learning bad habits firsthand.