Parenting Matters: Sleep as Medicine

Sometimes we forget that Mother Nature has as many “cures” as doctors have, maybe more. Case in point, sleep is medicine.

One pediatric study found a robust association between poor sleep and a host of childhood problems.

“Nearly every concern of parents and pediatricians can be brought on or exacerbated by inadequate sleep: from obesity to aggression to hyperactivity,” said the study’s lead investigator, Frederick J. Zimmerman of the University of Washington.

There are so many considerations when we talk about sleep, such as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), sleep terrors, and sleepwalking; we’ll save them for another day. Today we’ll focus on bedtime, getting to sleep, and the myriad of things that interfere with sleep.

Many medications, late-night exercise, and lack of exercise come to mind, but the worst offenders are phones, computers, video games, and television. That may explain how Rip van Winkle was able to sleep for 20 years: Neither he, his family, nor his neighbors had internet, radios, televisions, computers, or phones.

Research tells us that these and other electronic gadgets all affect sleep in a negative manner. Blue light emitted by electronic screens stimulates waking hormones and prevents sleep.

Too often we overlook the important role sleep plays in mental and physical growth and development, learning, physical fitness, and just plain feeling good. Interestingly, the first brain function to suffer from inadequate sleep is the ability to plan, organize activities, and pay attention.

Too little sleep messes up learning. An addition of 25 minutes of sleep is associated with measurable improvement in school performance among adolescents.

Inadequate sleep time really messes up learning and behavior so badly that many parents, teachers, and unfortunately, doctors, confuse lack of sleep with ADHD and treat the child with stimulants. That doesn’t make sense to me! An inadequate amount of sleep should be treated with more sleep, not with stimulants that actually prevent sleep, interrupt sleep, and make things worse.

Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta, Relexxii, Vyvanse, and Strattera are amphetamines and are used to treat narcolepsy, as well as ADD and ADHD. They’re related to methamphetamine, commonly known as “meth,” which is a powerful stimulant responsible for many deaths in those who use it illegally to get high and rowdy. All amphetamines have side effects, ranging from stomachache and loss of appetite to more serious irregular heartbeats, convulsions, and death.

Qelbree is a relatively new drug for ADHD. Its most common side effects are lethargy and sleepiness. Other side effects are increased heart rate and blood pressure; even more frightening, ADHD patients who use it have an increased risk of suicide ideation and behavior. Yet according to The Mental Health Industry Watchdog, more than 6 million kids in the United States take one or more of these psycho-actives daily.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends family counseling prior to starting these medications. I would prescribe them only if the family is in therapy, has made available at least one hour per day of outdoor play, and has limited family screen time to two hours or less daily and the symptoms are still extreme. Even then, I would be cautious.

Sleep is essential! All of us need sleep to rest our bodies and give our brains time to do their work. Fortunately, our brains work when we sleep and while we’re awake. It’s during sleep that our brains do the work needed for almost all mental and physical activity. Brains consolidate, organize, and file memories; store what we’ve learned; regulate our cognitive development; and control psychiatric health, immune function, fat deposition, and bodily growth and repair. All that and more occurs while we sleep.

How do we get our kids and ourselves to sleep more? It’s not exactly easy, but it is possible.

First, start with plenty of exercise during the day. Kids, like adults, should have at least 45 minutes of exercise three times per week; daily exercise is even better and outside exercise beats any other place.

Second, end every day with quiet activities, such as reading, conversation with family and friends, or playing a board game. Avoid TV, computers, and all electronic screens for an hour before bedtime. Remember, screen light stimulates the wake center and delays sleep onset. Of course, it goes without saying that there should be no naps for kids or adults after 4 p.m.

Third, save the bedroom for sleeping and changing clothes. The bedroom isn’t a place for entertaining friends, doing homework, watching TV, playing video games, texting, using a cellphone, or roughhousing with brothers, friends, or dad. These activities are important, but should take place away from bedrooms. All electronic gadgets, including televisions, should be in a home’s common areas, as far away from bedrooms as possible.

Fourth, equally important is establishing regular times for going to bed and getting up. Kids should have their own alarm clocks and be responsible for setting the wake-up time and getting up without their parents’ help. This should be started as soon as a child starts school. Kindergartners and first graders are so excited to go to school that it seems an ideal time to teach them that responsibility. Don’t wait until they’re in high school, or you might end up making wake-up calls to college kids. I’ve seen it happen more than once!

Make these changes, and you’ll see a big difference in your children’s lives and yours! Don’t be surprised to find that you have wonderful, well-rested, well-behaved, smart children who are ready to learn. And since good sleep is a lifelong habit, more sleep has a direct, significant, and beneficial long-term impact on the nation’s health and economy.

In my more than 40 years of taking care of kids as a pediatrician, a father, and a grandfather, I know this formula works. Try it, you’ll like it—and so will your kids and the rest of your family.

Enjoy your family, and may God continue to bless you and those you love..


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