ZZZs as Important as ABC's

-- taken from March 1996 Newsletter


As adults we often find it difficult to admit we need sleep, or more sleep, believing it shows weakness. Hense expressions like "caught at the wheel," "found asleep at the switch" and "If you snooze, you lose." But in fact, sleep is a wonderful gift to give yourself. Studies show that for adults, sleeping 15 minutes to two hours in the early afternoon can reduce stress and improve alertness. Not surprisingly, similar findings on the benefits of sleep hold true for children. So if you're a believer of "If you snooze, you lose," don't tell your child.

Healthy sleep appears to come so easily to newborn babies. It is envious how they fall asleep and stay asleep. (Also why after a good night's sleep we will say we slept like a baby.) After only several weeks of age however, sleep rhythms and patterns can be shaped into sleep habits by parents.

Children learn to sleep well. It does not come automatically. It is a skill that comes from healthy and disciplined habits that must be enforced by parents. And once healthy sleep habits are developed, they will most likely last a lifetime.

When children learn to sleep well, they also learn to maintain "optimal" wakefulness. Optimal wakefulness refers to the time when a child is awake and alert. This is the opposite of being awake, but groggy or hyper-alert. And when a child maintains optimal wakefulness, they are more apt to learn faster. An important study helps demonstrate the difference between these two states of wakefulness.

In 1925, the father of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test, Dr. Lewis M. Terman, compared a large group of children with IQ scores over 140 to a large group of children with IQ scores under 140. For every age group that was examined, the children with the higher IQ scores slept longer! Two years later, over 5000 Japanese school children were studied and those with better grades slept longer. Overall findings show that brighter children sleep about 30 to 40 minutes longer each night than average children of similar ages.

When we routinely keep children up too long before a nap or too late at night, whether it be to run errands, go to a social event, spend more time with a child or to avoid bedtime confrontations, we risk forming unhealthy sleep habits. These poor sleep habits are then unfortunately expressed through irritability, whining and a short attention span. Keeping a child up once in a while for a special occasion is okay. But day-in, day-out sleep deprivation can be damaging.

Proper sleep habits can be learned and bad sleep habits can be corrected. Naturally, the earlier you start and the more seriously you take it, the easier it will be. There are many good books on the subject that can be found at your local library or bookstore (strongly recommended Health Sleep Habits, Health Child by Marc Weissbluth, M.D.). Learn the tricks of the trade and put them into practice. You'll sleep better yourself knowing you've done your best to teach your child good sleep habits.


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