Getting a good night’s sleep may sound simple, but in this fast-paced, high-tech world, it may be easier said than done. Dr. Lili Poon is a pediatric sleep specialist with Novant Health Pediatric Sleep Medicine Specialists, board-certified in both Internal Medicine and Sleep Medicine. She shared some thoughts recently about getting a good night’s sleep.
Studies conducted at Harvard have shown that driving while drowsy can be just as deadly as driving under the influence. Dr. Poon attests to this saying, “Yes you can get less sleep and still function, but eventually, sleep will win.” She explains that when a person is sleep-deprived, they can have “microsleeps.” For example, you may recall getting in your car and arriving at home, but not the drive in between. “Your subconscious takes over to get you home, but it’s quite scary to think about,” she says.
The same thing can happen in children. Sometimes kids will experience sleep starts or hypnic jerks as they start to fall asleep but then jerk themselves awake. Dr. Poon says that in addition to a decreased ability to pay attention, kids can show a variety of behavioral problems when they’re sleep-deprived. “These issues can include mood disturbances, tantrums, fatigue, lethargy, aches, pains, and headaches. They may also get aggressive with siblings or classmates,” she says. “Sometimes a child with a sleep problem can be mistaken for having ADHD.” Dr. Poon says that we need sleep to take what we have learned and file that information into long-term memory.
Most everyone knows that adults need 7 – 8 hours of sleep, but many don’t realize that sleep needs for children vary at different ages. “Parents say, ‘My child gets 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night, so what’s the problem?’ It’s important for kids to get the right amount of sleep for their age so they can do their best as they are growing and learning.” She adds that younger children need more sleep in order to support their rapid growth and development.
“As kids get older, the sleep need decreases, but adolescents still need between 9 and 10 hours of sleep,” Dr. Poon explains. “Growth hormone is secreted in Stage 3 sleep between ages 3 and 15 and tapers off in adolescence. Kids need sleep to perform their best and grow to their full potential.”
|Age||Hours of Sleep Needed|
|Newborns and Babies||13 – 14 hours|
|Toddlers||11 – 14 hours|
|Pre-school (3 – 5 years old)||11 – 13 hours|
|School age (6 – 12 years old)||10 – 11 hours|
|Adolescents (12 – 18 years old)||9 – 10 hours|
|Adults||7 – 8 hours|
|Over age 65||Varies|
“We want to provide a better life for our children than we had. More opportunities, more things, more technology. Kids are exposed to cell phones, tablets, and TVs at an earlier age. But we have to draw the line at some point.” Dr. Poon explains that the problem with screen time is exposure to projected light. Melatonin, the hormone we produce that regulates sleep and wakefulness, can be decreased with exposure to light. That can delay the ability to go to sleep and stay asleep. When a cell phone or screen lights up in the middle of the night, our body reacts to that light and causes interrupted sleep or trouble falling back to sleep.
Dr. Poon says that parents should be aware of how much sleep their child needs and how much they are actually getting. Then, create a routine to get the child into the habit of going to bed around the same time every night. Encourage everyone who watches your child to follow the same routine. It can be simple: take a bath, put on pajamas, brush teeth, go to bed. “With each step, the child gets sleepier,” Dr. Poon explains. “The routine is so important.”
It’s ideal if parents have one hour of quiet time with their child before bed doing something calming, like reading a book, drawing, coloring, talking, or even puzzles. The child will have a chance to transition from the bright lights of the computer or TV screen, with the added benefit of giving the parent and child time together.
Another important part of the nighttime routine is to provide the child with a relaxing, peaceful environment to go to sleep. “Healthy sleep starts with a healthy sleep environment,” Dr. Poon says. “No TV watching, video gaming, cell phone or tablet use in bed.” She even cautions against doing homework in the bedroom. “The bed is for sleeping. Leave everything else out. Children should develop thoughts of relaxation when they go to bed instead of worrying if they studied enough for a test or completed all of their assignments.”
Dr. Poon says that one red flag is if your child is not sleeping the adequate recommended time per night. It’s better for parents to seek help at this stage rather than waiting for the child to become sleep-deprived or develop behavioral problems. Other sleep issues that a sleep specialist can address include sleep walking, sleep talking, sleep eating, restless legs, and night terrors.
Patients can be referred to Dr. Poon by their Primary Care Physician. Novant Health currently has four local sleep labs in Charlotte, Ballantyne, Monroe, and Huntersville. Novant Health has recently developed a high acuity sleep lab, so that pediatric patients who have sleep issues coupled with significant health problems, such as seizures or respiratory or cardiac conditions, can now have a sleep study completed in the comfort of Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital.
March is National Sleep Awareness Month. Take this opportunity to evaluate your family’s sleep routines and see if a referral to a pediatric sleep specialist is right for you.