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Bedtime: The Start of a Great Day at School

Students, even high schoolers, need to sleep nine hours a night

SUNDAY, Sept. 9, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Still doing your back-to-school shopping? Don't forget the pillows and sheets.

According to medical and educational experts, sleep is one of the most important but often neglected requirements for academic success. Although nutrition and exercise grab more attention, a good night's rest is considered just as critical for learning as healthy food and regular physical activity.

"Most parents are aware of the importance of providing their children a good breakfast each morning, but many families shortchange their kids when it comes to making sure they've had enough sleep the night before," says Dr. Carl Hunt, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, part of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

"Although there have not been any national studies of the prevalence of sleep-associated learning problems, we know from teachers and principals alike that falling asleep in class is commonplace," Hunt adds.

To remedy that, the institute has launched a five-year initiative to reach kids, parents, teachers and health-care professionals with the message that adequate nighttime sleep is essential to children's health, academic performance and safety.

With Garfield -- the cartoon feline with exceptionally well-honed sleeping skills -- as the initiative's official "spokescat," the campaign's theme is "Sleep Well. Do Well."

But just how much sleep is enough if you're a kid and not a fat, lazy cat?

According to Hunt and sleep specialists around the country, students at every grade level should be getting about nine hours of rest every night.

"The amount may vary slightly, depending on the child, but it should be close to nine hours, even for high school seniors," Hunt says. "With less sleep than that, academic performance is affected."

Educators have long recognized that sleep-deprived students do more poorly in school than their peers who've had adequate rest.

Fredrick N. Brown, associate executive director for professional services at the National Association of Elementary School Principals, says that during his 24-year career as an elementary school principal, he became well acquainted with children who slept through classes or were too tired to concentrate. His association is partnering with the government institute in the sleep promotion campaign and has mailed a new "Report to Parents on Sleep" to its membership of 28,500 elementary school principals nationwide as part of its commitment.

"It is our hope that early intervention with sleep education messages will help youngsters understand the importance of sleep," Brown says. "If we reach them early, they can develop good sleep habits that last a lifetime."

But both the educators and the sleep experts seem to realize that getting those heads to hit those pillows early enough to garner nine hours of rest is often easier said than done in today's hectic households.

"The standard response of parents and children alike is that they're too busy," Hunt says. "Long past the time children should be in bed, they're engrossed in competing activities like finishing up homework, playing video games, using the computer or watching television."

"Sleep is often viewed by children as what you do when there's nothing else on you want to see and nothing else available you want to do," he says.

Which usually means parents must set and enforce bedtimes -- as well as help children reframe their attitudes about sleep.

"The 'Sleep Well. Do Well' campaign is meant to help children understand that getting enough sleep will help them do their best at whatever is important to them," Hunt says. "Enough sleep can help them in school, in athletics, in games and activities of all types."

Child development specialists recommend creating a regular evening routine to transition children toward nine hours of rest each night. That routine should include turning off televisions, computers and video games and encouraging the children to engage in less stimulating activities as bedtime approaches.

Reading to children at bedtime, besides helping promote literacy, also helps in ramping down from physical activities and conversation to drowsiness and falling asleep.

What To Do

Check out the Garfield-based Web page, with information and activities for children, by visiting the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute online.

To find information on evaluating sleep problems in children, try the American Academy of Pediatrics.

SOURCES: Interviews with Carl E. Hunt, M.D., director, National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.; and Fredrick N. Brown, associate executive director, National Association of Elementary School Principals, Alexandria, Va.
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