Children cannot survive nor thrive without sleep. Sleep is essential for revitalizing, repairing and restoring the body’s physiological processes, mental health, growth, and promotes toxin removal from the brain. There are five main stages to the sleep cycle. The first 75% of sleep encompasses NREM (non-rapid eye movement) where there is lighter sleep followed by a deeper sleep. The latter 25% encompasses REM (rapid eye movement) sleep where brainwaves speed up and dreaming occurs. Muscles in the body relax and the heart rate increases.
In general, NREM sleep takes care of the physiological needs of the body, whilst REM sleep handles mental functions. See the chart below for the amount of average sleep a person needs depending on age. For children, the REM stages of sleep directly influence academic performance. REM sleep is where consolidation, long-term memory, processing of information, and prepares for the brain to make better connections the next day. Sufficient REM means improved memory, concentration, and reactions throughout the next day.
SLEEP DEPRIVATION IN HONG KONG
Hong Kong children sleep an average of 1.5 hours less than American children. Teenagers receive on average 7.3 hours of sleep, far below the average recommendation of 9 hours. These sobering statistics shed light on why 30% of preschoolers experience sleep problems, why those issues persist and perhaps why more children are experiencing depression, anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity. Approximately 28% of children report falling asleep at school at least once per week, 22% fall asleep doing homework and 32% are too tired to exercise.
Aside from academic performance, how else does insufficient sleep affect children and teens? Lack of sleep can result in profoundly poor health affecting the following:
- Academic performance deficits
- Decreased IQ
- Social impairment: difficulty reading facial expressions, subtle social cues
- Increased stress
- Risk taking behaviours
- Lack of attention to danger
- Mood issues
- Less than 8 hours per night results in 3 times increase in suicide attempts
- Weight gain
- Type 2 diabetes
- Increase risk for high blood pressure
- Heart disease
A common occurrence in Hong Kong is this example of a nine-year-old girl who consistently stays up until 2am. Everyone in the family had their own electronic device and watched individual television programming on their phones. There was a clear lack of social engagement in the family. The girl’s emotional wellbeing was severely impaired due to lack of sleep and emotional connection, and she talked of suicide despite being successful academically as an A student. The solution: the family changed to no device use one hour before bedtime and shifted bedtime gradually to 11:30pm. A firm limit was set around bedtime, study time and media. The family helped the girl work towards a full 8 hours of sleep per night. The girl’s emotional competency returned along with no more talk of suicide and improved family interactions and relationships.
6 STEPS TO IMPROVE SLEEP HABITS
- Simplify the Day: Avoid overscheduling between school, extracurricular activities and time with friends. Encourage downtime, relaxing activities, and playtime. Teens need to choose between activities and parents can help by setting realistic expectations. Discuss with your child their priorities for activities, friends and academics.
- Streamline the Morning Routine: Shower the evening before, pick out clothing and pack books before bedtime. Make sure your child eats a suitable breakfast. For example, an egg sandwich can be eaten on the bus ride to school. Some children sleep in their school uniform!
- Keep the Bedroom Sacred: The bedroom is a place for sleeping, relaxing activities and/or rest. The bed should only be used for sleeping. Do not allow electronic devices in the bedroom. Make a rule to leave devices outside the bedroom in an easily viewable area. If there is trouble with your child/teen using a device after an appropriate time, turn off the router. Studying should also be done in another room besides the bedroom. Reading before bedtime should be encouraged only if your child finds it relaxing. Some children find reading stimulating. For those children, set a limit on reading times.
- Manage Emotions Before Bed: Avoid arguing or discussing upsetting issues in the evening. You will wake up in the same mood in which you went to sleep. Talk about happy things before bedtime. If your child finds pleasant thoughts difficult, try “silver-linings” discussions. For example, if your child is having difficulty with a friend, try to brainstorm thinking about the situation positively. Activating pleasant memories before bed equals better and sounder sleep.
- Electronic Device Guidelines: Create an electronic device curfew. After the curfew, turn off the router so children are not able to access the internet. Social media is a great place to find new sources of anxiety, especially at night when children are already tired. Additionally, devices emit a blue light that sends a signal to the brain suppressing the production of melatonin keeping children from feeling tired. If your child wants to text with a friend, have them make a phone call instead. Check your child’s computer every so often to make sure work is being done efficiently. When multiple screen tabs are open, social media is being accessed and homework needs to be done, concentration levels decrease.
- Mindful Snacking: Teens are especially prone to eating and drinking on an erratic schedule. Have healthy snacks easily accessible such as cut carrots, nuts, crackers and avocado to keep blood sugar levels consistent. Cookies, sodas and crisps will impair sleep.
Remember that primary school through teenage children need boundaries on sleep and electronic device usage. Spend some time analysing your own use of devices to see if there are ways to improve the overall family dynamic and help your children be more successful and competent both socially and at school. Good sleep is a major building block of success both in and out of the classroom.
Dr. Minna Chau is a Clinical Psychologist at Sprout in Motion. Her interest in sleep developed after having a large number of children coming for behavioural issues, only to discover the root cause was lack of sleep. She also assesses children with ADHD, mood and anxiety disorders, learning disabilities and autism. Services are available in English, Cantonese and Mandarin. Find out more about Dr. Chau here.
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