Although sleep problems persist among many American children, parents can make a difference by setting boundaries around electronics use, enforcing rules, and setting a good example. These are the latest findings from the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) Sleep in America poll, an annual study that began in 1991. The 2014 poll took a deeper look into the sleep practices and beliefs of the modern family with school-aged children.
“For children, a good night’s sleep is essential to health, development, and performance in school,” says Kristen L. Knutson, PhD, University of Chicago, in a release. “We found that when parents take action to protect their children’s sleep, their children sleep better.”
Children Not Getting Enough Sleep
Many children get less sleep on school nights than they should, with some getting less sleep than their own parents think they need. The poll asked parents to estimate how much sleep their child typically gets on a school night. Parents’ estimates of sleep time are 8.9 hours for children ages 6 to 10, 8.2 hours for 11 and 12 year olds, 7.7 hours for 13 and 14 year olds, and 7.1 hours for teens ages 15 through 17.
The NSF recommends that children ages 6 to 10 get 10 to 11 hours of sleep per night, and that children in the other three age groups get 8.5 to 9.5 hours per night.
Parents were also asked how much sleep their child needs to be at their best, and 26% estimated this number to be at least one hour more than they say their child actually gets on school nights.
Parents do understand the importance of quality sleep even if they do not always think their children get it; more than 9 in 10 parents think sleep is extremely or very important for their child’s performance in school, health and well-being, and mood and behavior the next day.
Benefits of Turning Electronics Off
Electronic devices are pervasive in modern American children’s bedrooms. Parents report that nearly three out of four (72%) children ages 6 to 17 have at least one electronic device in the bedroom while they are sleeping.
Children who leave electronic devices on at night get less sleep on school nights than other children do, according to parents’ estimates–a difference of up to nearly one hour on average per night. Parents also have a more negative view of the quality of their child’s sleep if the child leaves electronics on while sleeping than if not.
This holds true even with older children who are more likely to leave electronics on. Teens who leave devices on are estimated to get, on average, half an hour less sleep on school nights (7.2 hours per night) than those who never leave devices on (7.7 hours). Only 27% of parents whose teens leave devices on rate their teen’s sleep as excellent, versus 53% of parents whose teens never leave electronics on.
“To ensure a better night’s sleep for their children, parents may want to limit their children using technology in their bedroom near or during bedtime,” says Orfeu Buxton, PhD, Harvard Medical School.
Evening Activities Affect Sleep Quality
The modern family’s busy schedule affects their sleep quality. More than one-third (34%) of parents report that scheduled evening activities pose challenges to their child getting a good night’s sleep and even more (41%) point to these activities as challenging their own good night’s sleep. One in four (28%) parents report that in the last 7 days, homework made it more difficult for their child to get a good night’s sleep.
“It can be tough to make time for sleep when we’re too busy; making sleep a priority can give all family members the energy to function at their best every day. Sometimes performing better in fewer activities can be a healthy trade for too many activities while fatigued,” says Hawley Montgomery-Downs, PhD, West Virginia University.
Enforcing Rules Helps Children Get More Sleep
When parents set and enforce sleep rules, children sleep longer. Nearly all (92%) parents set one or more sleep-related rules for their children and 62% of parents say they always enforce at least one of these rules. Children get more sleep when parents have rules about bedtime (children sleep an average of 1.1 hours more than children whose parents do not have such rules), how late the child can have caffeine drinks (0.7 hours more than those without rules), or how late the child can watch TV (0.6 hours more than those without rules).
Regular enforcement of established rules is even more effective at improving children’s sleep. For example, when parents always enforce rules on how late their child can have caffeine drinks, their child gets an estimated average of 0.9 hours more sleep than children whose parents enforce such rules less consistently or do not have those rules at all. When parents always enforce rules on how late smartphones and cell phones can be used, children get an estimated average of 0.8 hours more sleep.
“A good first step in setting and enforcing sleep-related rules is to establish bedtimes,” says Jim Spilsbury, PhD, MPH, Case Western Reserve University.
Parents’ Example Encourages Children
Children whose parents have healthy sleep environments tend to have healthier sleep environments themselves. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of children whose parents have one or more “interactive” electronics (tablet or smartphone, laptop or desktop computer, and/or video game) in their bedroom also have at least one device in their own bedroom. Only 24% of children have a device in their bedroom if their parent does not.
“Parents need to be good role models in their responsible use of electronics and their children will follow suit,” says Monique K. LeBourgeois, PhD, University of Colorado Boulder.
“The modern family is more connected and busier than ever, making parenting a more daunting challenge than it ever has been,” says Helene A. Emsellem, MD, The Center for Sleep & Wake Disorders and George Washington University Medical Center. “Electronics are prevalent in American homes, so it is important for parents to have a family strategy. Be vigilant about your children’s electronics use in the bedroom, set sleep times, and talk to your children about the importance of sleep.”