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The science behind naps

by Dr. Adrian Williams

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When it comes to ways to protect our health and our family’s health, kids are little adults—aren’t they? The same things we, as parents, are advised to do for our health would work for children too—wouldn’t they? 

Well, when it comes to sleep, in spite of great similarities, there are also great differences.

We all know that sleep is unavoidable no matter your age (evidence of its absolute necessity), even if the underlying drive is unknown. We can also assume that if sleep didn’t perform some crucial function, it would be the biggest mistake evolution ever made. But beyond being crucial and unavoidable, what are the details?

Let’s start with how much sleep kids need: is it the same 7-8 hours that parents need? There is no set amount, but clear guidelines have been provided by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and others, and the answer is more. And this changes with age. At one week, babies might sleep a daily total of 16-17 hours. By age 4, it’s 11-12 hours. From then onward there is, on average, a reduction of 15 minutes per night per year until age 10 when the child should be sleeping 8-10 hours.

So, kids are not adults; they need more sleep. The Center for Disease Control reports insufficient sleep to be common among teens with more than two-thirds of high school students reporting less than seven hours on a school night.

And if they don’t get it, children are more likely to be overweight, craving starchy foods and sugar during the day; younger children seem irritable and overactive, not concentrating well, and some are mistaken for having ADHD. Children can look better, more easily maintain a healthy weight, perform better with more energy, feel better with emotions regulated, and can learn more because of improved attention span and memory. Shouldn’t this all translate into improved academic performance then? Indeed, and this is a reason that some schools in the U.S. and the U.K. have introduced later start times for pupils to counter the natural tendency for teens to sleep late.

But why do teens sleep late? Physiologic changes contribute to late nights, but sleep patterns are greatly influenced by light and hormones. When sunlight dims in the evening our body clock responds; melatonin is produced telling the body it is the time for sleep. But does light dim in the teen’s bedroom? Probably not, with cell phones and computer screens emitting blue-enhanced light that has the most effect on the body clock.

This blue-enhanced light stops the production of melatonin, which delays sleep even more. Getting up early for school then limits sleep to less than 8 hours, which is not enough, with children dozing in class and having marathon lie-ins over the weekend. Catching up on Saturdays and Sundays is not ideal, with the real possibility of further disrupting the body clock which then thinks that 2 a.m. to 11 a.m. sleep is normal (in medical terms, the Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome)! The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all screens go off 30 minutes before bedtime.

So how do you know that your child is getting enough sleep? Getting up fairly easily, being alert during the day, and happy, not grumpy (most of the time) are the best clues.

Making sleep a priority for kids will help them understand the importance of sleep. Lack of sleep can hinder their academic performance, but more importantly, it can increase risks to their health and their safety. Sleep is our recharge button, no matter our age. To make it happen, there are some simple and practical fixes: limit late caffeine, encourage exercise during the day, ease off the blue-light electronics at night, and apply a little mindfulness.

Now, off to bed.

Dr. Adrian Williams

Dr. Adrian Williams is the UK's first Professor of Sleep Medicine with a lifetime of experience in the field. This began at Harvard, followed by many productive years at UCLA, and now London. His clinical experience is extensive; his research has encompassed most areas of sleep, with his current interest focused on meditation as a way of improving sleep and, as a natural consequence, health.