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Prescription for better school performance: an earlier bedtime.

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  October 15, 2012 10:52 AM

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One extra half hour of sleep can help your child do better in school. Just one half hour.

That's the message of a study just released in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Researchers found 34 kids ages seven to 11 who were all healthy, didn't have behavioral problems, and were getting what we generally consider "enough" sleep: eight and a half to nine and a half hours a night. For five nights in a row, they asked half of the kids to go to bed an hour later and the other half to go to bed an hour earlier. They asked the parents to rate the kids on their sleepiness, and asked the kids' teachers (who didn't know what group they were in) to rate the kids' behavior--specifically, how moody, restless or impulsive they were. These are behaviors that directly impact a child's ability to pay attention and learn in school.

There were no big surprises in the group that was asked to go to bed an hour later. The kids were sleeper, moodier, more restless and more impulsive (we can all relate, I'm sure--I know I act that way when I get less sleep). But the results with the group that was asked to go to bed early were interesting.

The kids didn't actually sleep a full hour more. It's not easy to fall asleep earlier than you are used to; on average, they only slept 27 extra minutes. But those 27 minutes made a difference: not only did their parents of those kids say they were less sleepy, but their teachers found them to be less moody, restless and impulsive than usual. And remember, these kids were theoretically getting enough sleep before!

Parents, please pay attention to this study.

We all know that sleep is important. We all know, too, from personal experience, that when we don't get enough we are cranky and don't concentrate or perform as well as we usually do. More and more studies are proving that this is true in kids, too, showing behavioral and learning problems in kids who don't get enough good sleep. Not getting enough sleep is also linked to health problems like obesity.

And at the same time, as a pediatrician I'm seeing kids I'm seeing kids getting less and less sleep. It's worst with the adolescents; just recently I had a high school student tell me that between extracurricular activities and homework, there was simply no way for him to get more than six hours of sleep. Even the ones who don't do much after school are staying up late because they are spending so much time texting or on the Internet. Younger kids are texting too, and so very many of my patients have televisions in their bedrooms that are on until late. Few families have calming routines in the evening; it seems like life goes at a breakneck pace until the moment the lights go out--and parents wonder why the kids don't fall asleep. 

It's true that we don't know exactly how much sleep kids need, and that some kids need less--or more--than others. But this study underlines the fact that getting more sleep can help a child behave better--and learn better.

Try it out at your house. Send the kids to bed an hour earlier. It will likely take some rearranging of routines as well as cutting back on TV, Internet and texting. But if it helps your child succeed in school, it's worth it. Think of it as an investment in their future.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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