Busy families are all alike; they never seem to have enough hours in the day to get everything done. But between play time and school or work time, something has to give. Which is why many parents allow themselves and their children to routinely steal hours away from a good night's sleep in order to make time for their over-scheduled lives. No wonder more than 22 percent of adults and about a third of school children in this country are sleep deprived, according to recent polls conducted by the National Sleep Foundation.
So consider scaling back on commitments and activities to ensure that everyone gets enough sleep, says Dr. Susan Zafarlotfi, the clinical director of the Institute of Sleep-Wake Disorders at Hackensack University Medical Center. In fact, encouraging good sleep habits is one of the best ways to ensure health and happiness for your entire family. Recent studies have shown that excessive fatigue is associated with health problems as wide-ranging as memory deficits, obesity and traffic accidents.
"Sleep is actually food for the brain; food for the heart and vascular system; food for all of the body's functions and all of its cells," Zafarlotfi says. "Without enough sleep at night, your body will become dysfunctional. You cannot fool Mother Nature."
It's not always a straightforward relationship, of course. For example, pulling an occasional all-nighter doesn't directly cause you to gain weight. Instead, your metabolism slows down a bit so that you might feel "funny" but not know what's wrong. Then you might eat a bit more than usual to try to quell that uncomfortable feeling. That slows down your metabolism a bit more. Eventually you can pack on the pounds.
Unfortunately, Americans have lost an average of two hours of sleep a night over the past century, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Zafarlotfi explains that before the modern era, people were active during the daylight hours and slept when it was dark. But as electricity started lighting our nights, and things like telephones, television and computers have allowed people to become productive at any hour, more and more people have become chronically sleep deprived. "People think that just because they can communicate and conduct business with Japan in the middle of the night," she says, "they should."
How much sleep do most people need each night? Babies need the most, of course, with newborns clocking between 14 and 16 hours a day. That gradually decreases through the toddler and preschool years, so that after the age of 5, most children, teens, adults and even the elderly need more or less the same amount of sleep, between seven and 10 hours.
"Nobody needs just four hours," says Zafarlofti. "If somebody is telling you that, they really are fooling themselves." She notes that there is definitely some variation in sleep needs, where some people are considered short sleepers, and others longer sleepers. But short sleepers might need six hours. Not four. Similarly, if somebody seems to need to sleep 12 or 14 hours a night, they should be checked to make sure that sleep isn't masking another problem, like depression or a sleep disorder.
How do you know if you're sleep deprived? It's not rocket science. If you feel tired when you wake up and have trouble functioning without stimulants like caffeine or chocolate, you need more sleep. In children, fatigue can show up as either hyperactive or lethargic behavior, adds Zafarlotfi. So if your child seems sleepy during the day or is overly hyped up and having problems concentrating in school, one of the first things to consider is sleep habits.
It's best to instill good sleep habits early on. Whether you're a devotee of Drs. Ferber or Weissbluth and their sleep training styles, or you have your own sleep management method, the most important thing for baby is to be given an opportunity to learn how to soothe herself and fall asleep without help. Obviously, if your baby is colicky or very, very young, you can help her along with a little rocking. But as she gets older, you need to retreat. "Let them get acquainted with their bedrooms instead of continuously rocking them," advises Zafarlotfi. "Do not hover over them, and do not try to be super-duper protective."
Overall, it's important to stress to children that sleep is a positive, rewarding state. As they get older, kids easily confuse sleep with punishment, because it's a time when toys and stimulating social interactions are withdrawn. But don't let them think of their bedrooms "as a jail" or dwell too much on what they're missing out on. Instead, Zafarlotfi says, tell them frequently that sleep is the most beautiful part of their lives, because it is the food for their brains. It might sound hokey Ð and the Doctor's own son used to roll his eyes at her frequently Ð but kids won't know this unless you tell them.
Pleasant wind-down rituals before bedtime are critical. Lights should be low, electronic devices silenced, and pajamas worn. Snuggling up with your child and a book is a perennial favorite, but anything that gets your child pleasantly sleepy will do.
There are more than 90 types of sleep disorders. Sleep and its disorders do not discriminate against age or gender. Individuals owe it to themselves to get restorative sleep, and if they can't, they should consult their physician.
Remarkably, through most of our lifetime, our sleep needs remain relatively constant. What changes, though, is our ability to fall asleep and to stay asleep at different times of the day and night. Here are some of the most common sleep patterns at different times in our lives.
Infants sleep somewhere between 14 and 16 hours a day, often only waking up to be fed or changed.
Toddlers need on average between 10 and 12 hours of sleep a day, and generally nap twice. If your child is having problems sleeping through the night, you might try shortening naps.
School-age children generally need between 8 and 12 hours, which then can be practiced for the rest of their lives.
The teen years usually include a physiological shift in a child's sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythm). Melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep, is secreted by the body several hours later than at any other time of life. That means that a teen is alert and generally unable to fall asleep until the early hours of the morning. Unfortunately high school kids who have to be dragged out of bed in the wee hours to make an early-morning class are perpetually exhausted. The good news is that they can make up some of this sleep on the weekends.
College kids still experience the later circadian rhythm of the teen years, but often are able to adapt their life schedule around this timing.
During the mid-20s to early 30s most people enter the workforce, and often become more regimented in and healthier about their sleep habits.
The 30s is often a child-bearing and -rearing decade, as well as a high stress time on the job. Moms with infants, in particular, can become severely sleep-deprived and should pay attention to their sleep needs. Some ways to get back on track include getting help to watch the baby so you can take long naps on the weekend if you work outside the home. Or, making an effort to nap at the same time as your child if you are a stay-at-home parent.
During the 40s and 50s, many people start to gain weight, and the neck thickens. This can lead to snoring and, ultimately, sleep apnea, which can cause serious medical problems including stroke, high blood pressure and heart disease. If you suspect apnea, talk with your doctor.
The 60s are a time where sleep starts to be interrupted due to medical problems causing aches and pains.
Golden adults, in their 70s, often experience a change in their circadian rhythm, called Advanced Sleep Phase Syndrome. Here, they get really sleepy early in the evening but wake in the middle of the night. Daytime cat naps can usually allow older folks to obtain enough sleep for proper health.