Your Kids Need To Sleep For Atleast 8 Hours. Otherwise, The Consequences Are Quite Severe.
Gone are those days when kids slept by 8 PM and woke up by 7–8 AM the next day. That used to be a full 11–12 hour sleep cycle for thousands and millions of years. Yeah, am not kidding. Literally throughout the entire human race, (barring the last 50–60 years), kids used to get a full night’s sleep (defined as anything between 8–10 hours) and they work up fresh, energetic, playful, and ready to explore a brand new day.
The term ‘kid” in this article refers to your toddler, pre-schooler, young child, pre-teenager, teenager, and even adult kid. (Not included infants in this definition, since it is already known infants sleep like logs)
And top it all, they had much fewer infections, much lesser viral and flu episodes, they were less depressed and moody, much lesser ADHD diagnoses, fewer anxiety disorders, lesser cases of cough and colds, etc. Overall, they had better immune systems and were more active and jovial than most present-day kids. Sure, the medical systems and availability of treatment options at those time were few and limited, and that caused other sets of issues to deal with.
But you might wonder, why and how all these things are linked to a full night’s sleep? One would be tempted to fire back and say — “Hey, my kid gets enough sleep through the night, and plus she/he has to go to school early morning”. Or another one could say — “It’s alright if my kid gets a slightly lesser amount of sleep for a few days during the week; she/he will make it up during the weekend” — I will touch upon that a little later in this article
Or another one could say — “There is so much homework to be done and my kid is in a higher grade, so she/he has to put in more towards her studies, as opposed to getting a full night’s sleep”. Or another could say (I promise, this is the last one) — ”We get back home late in the night from work, so it’s a usual and common pattern in our house to sleep much later”. All these are valid reasons in our daily lives.
Well, this list can also be endless, if I really want to irritate the hell out of you now. But am a very generous person and going to move forward. But I hope you got the point. If you didn’t, just go back and read the above para again.
So, let’s understand a little bit more about this thing called “Sleep”, that we all (literally ALL) of us take for granted — including yours truly; until I got curious and started reading about it a few months back.
You might again wonder, “Why would you read about “Sleep”? It’s what you just do when you are either tired or want to go to bed”. What’s rocket science about it, and why are you making a big deal about it?
The thing is — it is actually rockety sciencey (thankfully not like the Elon Musk types) and it is a VERY BIG DEAL. (aha, now, I have your full attention).
Introducing You To The Concept Of Sleep
Let me ask you this — How was your sleep last week, do you think you got enough sleep, and were you feeling at your best every day? Can you recall the last time you woke up without an alarm clock (and after hammering that dreaded snooze button a hundred times) feeling refreshed, not needing caffeine? If the answer to either of these questions is “no,” you are not alone. Welcome to my old world. My new world is much different now that I have better understood the concept of Sleep, not only for myself but also for my two children (11 years and 6 years old).
According to Dr. Matthew Walker — Professor of Neuroscience & Psychology at UC Berkley, two-thirds of adults throughout all developed nations fail to obtain the recommended eight hours of nightly sleep. I doubt you are surprised by this fact, but you may be surprised (in fact very surprised) by the consequences.
- Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system (yup, more than you can ever imagine) and more than doubles your risk of cancer.
- Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor determining whether or not you will develop Alzheimer’s disease.
- Inadequate sleep — even moderate reductions for just one week — disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be classified as pre-diabetic. No wonder Diabetes is the leading cause of many health issues that our humanity is facing today.
- Short sleeping increases the likelihood of your coronary arteries becoming blocked and brittle, setting you on a path toward cardiovascular disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure.
And all of this is backed by scientific evidence and thousands of trials and experiments over many years. Every part of your and your children’s wellness — both physical health and mental health is being severely compromised by neglecting sleep. The interesting part is, that you are not even aware of it because no one even told you how much sleep is important for you, and why it hampers your immune system so badly.
Were you aware that the World Health Organization (WHO) has now declared a sleep loss epidemic throughout all developed nations? I bet you a million bucks you didn’t (yeah, I know I don’t have a million bucks). I didn’t about it too, until just a few months back.
It is no coincidence that countries where sleep time has declined most dramatically over the past century, such as the US, the UK, Japan, South Korea, several countries in Asia — China, India, and several in western Europe, are also those suffering the greatest increase in rates of many physical diseases and mental disorders. Just look around and you know what I mean.
Let’s dive in a little more —
Firstly, Am sure most of you have might have heard about the 24-hour circadian rhythm? If not, read this and this. In its simplest form, it dictates when you are most alert and when you are ready for sleep.
Secondly, humans don’t just sleep, but cycle through two completely different types of sleep. These two sleep stages are based on their defining ocular features — Non–Rapid Eye Movement (NREM sleep), and Rapid Eye Movement (REM sleep). It is not just necessary that you “sleep” through the night. It is fundamentally important to get both these stages of sleep (NREM and REM) every night. No, am not kidding. You need to get both, as they play a crucial role in your cognitive functioning and your overall health and mental well-being; more so in your children.
Every human (child and adult) goes through a 90 mins cycle of NREM and REM sleep all through the night. Yup, 90 minutes, as defined by mother nature through millions of years of evolution. Don’t ask me why 90 mins (but there is scientific proof). Mother Nature is always mysterious.
The key is to understand what happens in your child’s brain during these beautifully architected NREM and REM stages all through the night.
During the first half of the night, the vast majority of your child’s 90 mins cycles are consumed by deep NREM sleep (that’s when memories are formed/consolidated). But as they transition through into the second half of the night, this seesaw balance shifts, with most of the time dominated by REM sleep (and very little NREM sleep).
By early morning hours, your kids are practically drowning in REM sleep. That’s the time they enter the heavily loaded dream state, where their mind drifts away into far-away mystical lands and universes. And when they wake up, they can remember some parts of their dream, ’cause they have dreamt just a while ago. As the day progresses (within 30–45 mins), most of the kids also forget their dreams, because their brain is now being bombarded with all the chaos and noise that is part of their daily lives.
To think of it, human evolution has gone to great lengths to construct the neural circuits in the brain that produce this “early morning” heavily loaded REM sleep and the functions that REM sleep support. There must be a reason for it, right? You bet, there is. Mother Nature always has a reason.
There are two core benefits of REM sleep. Both benefits require not just that they have REM sleep, but that they dream as well.
- The first function involves nursing their emotional and mental health.
- The second is problem solving and creativity, the power of which some individuals try to harness more fully by controlling their dreams (which I am not covering today to avoid the risk of lengthening the article. I don’t you to put you off to sleep while reading an article about sleep).
REM Sleep For Emotional & Mental Health
REM-sleep dreaming offers a form of overnight therapy, ie REM-sleep dreaming takes the painful sting out of difficult, even traumatic, emotional episodes your kids have experienced during the day, offering emotional resolution when they wake up the next morning.
During REM sleep, there is an amazing change in the chemical cocktail of the brain that takes place. Concentrations of a key stress-related chemical called “Noradrenaline” are completely shut off within the brain when they enter this dreaming sleep state. In fact, REM sleep is the only time during your kid or teenager’s entire 24-hour chaotic stress-filled day when their brain is completely devoid of this anxiety-triggering molecule.
Take a moment now and think about it. Your kids have this amazing window of 90 mins during their entire 24-hour day when there is no release of any stress chemical in their brain. And we are literally robbing them of this great window of opportunity, by waking them up early in the morning to get them ready for school. No wonder, most of the kids today seem stressed out, moody, have behavioral issues, have anxiety disorders, and get easily depressed.
REM-sleep with dreaming is their overnight free therapy (it literally does not cost you even a dime). It is that part of their sleep that is needed to keep their mind safe from the clutches of stress, anxiety, and reactive depression.
To summarize, REM-sleep dreaming state is a perfectly designed nocturnal soothing balm — one that removes the emotional sharp edges of their daily lives. Mother Nature knows what it is doing. No wonder, it's called “Mother” and not “Father Nature”. Sorry Dads, this round goes to Moms.
But What Is Currently Happening To Our Children?
More than 80 percent of schools in developed countries begin anywhere between 8–15 a.m. And the majority of those start before 7.20 am, and thus school buses usually begin picking up kids at around 6–6.15 am. As a result, some children and teenagers have to wake up at 5.15–5.30 am, or even earlier. Just imagine, they have to do so all five days of the week, for months and years together. This is absolutely crazy. Why?
Our children didn’t always go to school at this biologically unreasonable time. Almost a century ago, schools in developed nations (US, Europe, etc) started at 9 am. As a result, 95% percent of all children woke up without an alarm clock. Now, the inverse is true, caused by the early school start times — which are in direct conflict with children’s evolutionarily preprogrammed need to be asleep during the precious, REM-sleep-rich morning hours.
And most critically, it is leading to massive sleep deprivation amongst young kids and teenagers; thus causing increasing health and mental issues (not accounting for the drop in academic performance). This pattern of early morning school timings has also spread to other Asian countries (India, China, Singapore) that are so desperately trying to “westernize” their education systems.
Forced by early school start times, this state of chronic sleep deprivation is especially concerning considering that the pre-teen and teenage years are the most vulnerable phase of life for developing chronic mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and even suicidality.
This is all researched based evidence. According to Matthew Walker, back in the 1960s, when the functions of sleep were still largely unknown, researchers selectively deprived young adults of REM sleep (and thus no dreaming stage) for a week, while still allowing them NREM sleep.
The unfortunate study participants spent the entire time in the laboratory with electrodes placed on their heads. At night, whenever they entered into the REM-sleep state, a research assistant would quickly enter the bedroom and wake the subjects up. The blurry-eyed participants then had to do Math problems for five to ten minutes, preventing them from falling back into dream sleep (REM sleep). But as soon as the participants did return into REM sleep, the procedure was repeated.
Hour after hour, night after night, this went on for an entire week. NREM sleep was left largely intact, but the amount of REM sleep was reduced to a fraction of its regular quantity. It didn’t require all seven nights of dream-sleep deprivation before the mental health effects began to manifest.
By the third day, participants were expressing signs of psychosis. They became anxious, moody, and started to hallucinate. They were hearing things and seeing things that were not real. They also became paranoid. Some believed that the researchers were plotting against them in collusive ways — trying to poison them, for example.
Only then did scientists realize the rather profound conclusions of the experiment: REM sleep is what stands between rationality and insanity. Describe these symptoms to any doctor or a pediatrician or a psychiatrist without informing them of the REM-sleep deprivation context, and the doctor will most definitely give clear diagnoses of depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia. But these were all healthy young individuals just days before. They were not depressed, they were not suffering from anxiety disorders or schizophrenia, nor did they have any history of such conditions.
It is the lack of REM sleep — that critical stage occurring in the final early morning hours of sleep that we strip from our children and teenagers by way of early school start times — that creates the difference between a happy, jovial, energetic child, and an irritable, constantly moody, anxiety-driven child.
Data aggregated over the past century from more than 750,000 school children aged 5–18 yrs has also revealed, that they are sleeping two hours fewer per night than their counterparts were a hundred years ago. This is true no matter what age group, or sub-age group, you consider.
A very important reason for making sleep a top priority in the education and lives of our children is the link between sleep deficiency and the epidemic of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Children with ADHD diagnosis are irritable, moodier, more distractible, and unfocused in learning during the day, and have a significantly increased prevalence of depression and suicidal ideation.
Guess what, if you make a list of these symptoms — Unable to maintain focus and attention, Deficient learning, Behaviorally difficult, Mental Health instability), and then strip away the label of ADHD, these symptoms are nearly identical to those caused by a lack of sleep.
Take an under-slept young kid or a teenager to a doctor and describe these symptoms without mentioning the lack of sleep, which is not uncommon, and what would you imagine the doctor is diagnosing the child with, and medicating them for? Not deficient sleep, but ADHD.
And this starts another negative spiral in the child’s life. Not only does she/he gets labeled for life, but is also put on medication for a problem that is incorrectly diagnosed. What was purely a sleep issue, has now become a medical issue.
We Need To Wake Up From Our Sleep
Many parents remain oblivious to the state of their kids’ sleep deprivation, so often undervaluing this biological necessity. More than 70 % of parents believe their child gets enough sleep (including me until a few months back). When in reality, less than 25 % of children aged 6 to 18 actually obtain the necessary amount.
As parents, we have a very narrow view of the need and importance of sleep in our children, sometimes even stigmatizing their desire to sleep enough, which the school system has saddled them with through no fault of their own.
Most significant is the issue of sunrise school bus schedules that selectively deprive our young children and teenagers of that early-morning slumber, just at the moment in their sleep cycle when their developing brains are about to drink in most of their much-needed REM sleep. We are literally bankrupting their dreams, in so many different ways.
Now, that I have personally better understood the harmful and lasting effects of lack of sleep, I have changed my personal sleep schedule to get in the necessary 7 1/2 hrs — 8 hrs of sleep every night (which means, I have stopped watching late-night movies or binging on Netflix (which thankfully anyways was not much) on both weekdays and weekends). No, I am not adopting a sedentary lifestyle by cutting off my TV time, instead am investing that time into my sleep.
Most importantly, we are making our kids go to bed latest by 9.30–9.45 pm, so that they receive a good 8–8 1/2 hours of sleep before they wake up for school at 6.15 AM (which I still believe is quite early for them, considering the school starts at 8 am). The school bus arrives at 7 am.
Earlier I was quite flexible with my kids sleeping by 10–10.30 pm on certain days, believing that they can make up for their lack of sleep during the weekends. How naive and uninformed I was.
Keep in mind that sleep is not like a credit system or the bank. If you are thinking that the brain can recover all the sleep it has been deprived of during the week, then you are thinking wrong. I was thinking wrong. When it comes to sleep, we cannot accumulate “sleep debt” without a penalty, nor can we repay that sleep debt at a later time.
You need to allow your kids to sleep well every single night (minimum of 8 hours), so that they don’t go into sleep debt in the first place.
I hope we all can change. I hope we all can break this parent-to-child transmission of sleep neglect, and take active measures to provide more quantity and quality of sleep to our children. By changing our own sleep schedules and/or incorporating revised sleep schedules for our children, we can help to give them their sleep (and their dreams) back, which they are so painfully starved of.
Quoting Dr. Matthew Walker’s words — “When sleep is abundant, minds flourish. When it is deficient, they don’t”.
As a father to two children, I come across many parents at school, playground, birthday parties, etc. Mostly all the conversations amongst parents revolve around how their kid(s) have become so hyperactive, not able to sit in one place for more than 5 mins (actually 5 mins is an eternity these days), having behavioral issues, and are unable to focus for long hours, etc.
Practically, all these things are linked to a lack of adequate sleep. It's a vicious cycle. An under-slept child will surely be moody and restless the next day. Even adults become moody and irritable when they don’t get enough sleep. So spare your kid and get him/her to bed early enough.
Lastly, I urge you to take out some time and watch an absolutely amazing conversation between Joe Rogan and Dr. Matthew Walker on YouTube. Watching that episode opened my eyes to the importance of sleep, something I had taken for granted for so many years (more than 3 decades). I never knew that I was accumulating copious amounts of sleep debt, which I could never repay.
But now, I am glad that am more aware and informed to make the changes required in the sleep schedules of my children, so that they are not sleep deprived and don’t go into an irrecoverable sleep debt when they grow up.
More importantly, they can dream of far-away fantasy lands and magical universes.
References, Sources, and Credits —
- Joe Rogan's conversation with Dr. Matthew Walker on YouTube.
- Andrew Huberman's conversation with Dr. Matthew Walker on Youtube.
- Dr. Matthew Walker's book — Why We Sleep?