Helping Kids Reset Summer's Sleep Clock

For many, back-to-school means a whole new wake-up time

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By Juhie Bhatia
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 7, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- A summer of irregular sleeping patterns can make it tough for kids returning to school to wake up when they should, but specific strategies can help them reset their internal clocks.

Better sleep means better, happier students, experts point out, and the time to get kids' sleep schedules in sync with the new semester is now.

"If you go into a classroom and pick out the poorest-performing kid, the odds are they have a sleep disorder. These disorders are four to seven times higher in these kids compared to the best-performing kids in the classroom," said John Herman, director of the Children's Medical Center Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

Sleep problems can also make children more irritable, more prone to depression, and affect their athletic ability, among other things. To prevent this, experts suggest adjusting children's sleeping habits at least one week before school starts.

One common mistake parents make, though, is trying to put their children to bed early to help them wake up early, said Herman. Instead, parents should just shift their child's wake up time earlier each day until it matches the wake up time for school, he suggested. If children are up earlier, they will be tired enough to sleep earlier.

This strategy alone is often not enough to help teenagers, who tend to stay up later at night. Parents are usually less involved in teens' sleep and wake-up times, and things such as homework, jobs and friends put great demands on their time.

Changes in the hormone melatonin, which is associated with sleep, during puberty also encourages later sleep and wake up times by shifting the circadian rhythm. Since teens still need about nine hours of sleep a night, according to the National Sleep Foundation, this shift can make it difficult for them to get up on time.

"The transition to go to school is easier for younger children," said Dr. Richard Millman, a professor of medicine at Brown Medical School. "Once you start puberty, the transition gets tough, since now the brain tells you to stay up later, but parents and school tell you to get up earlier."

One way teens can adjust their circadian clocks is by using light, which helps signal to the brain when it should wake up or prepare to sleep.

"If you apply lights for children it will also affect their circadian rhythms, but we don't know if it's needed, since they're more in sync with the societal clock. Teens are not in time with societal norms," said Mariana Figueiro, program director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

You can use bright light in the morning, for example, to help wake the brain up. Figueiro recommended that parents wake up adolescents and teens about 15 minutes earlier each day until reaching the desired sleep and wake times. As soon as the child wakes up, open their blinds or shades, turn on bright lights, or take your child outside for a half hour to an hour to expose them to the light and begin shifting their clock.

Putting children in an East- or South- facing room and combining exercise with light exposure can also help shift their clock, added Herman. Children should also avoid bright light at night (which includes television and computer screens), since it can keep them up later. Instead, children should wind down before heading to bed, the experts said.

"In addition to controlling light exposure, control excitement," said Figueiro. "If you're doing mental tasks like watching a DVD there's more brain activity. So you want to avoid activity a few hours before sleeping."

If teens and adolescents don't get enough sleep during the week, Millman and Figueiro recommended letting them sleep in a bit on the weekends, or allowing naps to help them catch up.

"If they're taking naps they aren't lazy," said Millman. "Sleep need doesn't change during the teenage years, but sleep duration definitely changes. They need to make up this sleep debt."

More information

For more information on teens and sleep, visit the National Sleep Foundation.

SOURCES: John Herman, associate professor, psychiatry, and director, Children's Medical Center Sleep Disorders Center, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas; Richard Millman, M.D., professor, medicine, Brown Medical School; Mariana Figueiro, program director, the Lighting Research Center, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, N.Y.

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