It is a paradox that modern society is filled with technological conveniences, yet these devices have created a new problem – sleep debt or sleep deprivation. Sleep duration or the number of hours a person sleeps every night has been on the decline in many countries during the past several decades.

This decrease is most evident in children, leading researchers to suggest that the current rise in school and behavior problems in children is an indication of sleep deprivation.

What are the Causes of Sleep Debt in Children?

Sleep apnea and overexposure to technology such as television, video games and computers are most often seen to be the culprits. However, prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol is equally culpable. Children of parents exposed to nicotine, alcohol, marijuana and opiates often experience sleep problems. Attention is being paid to the effect these substances have on the developing brains of fetuses.

Over-fatigue in children is another cause; it can be triggered by late night television viewing, consumption of caffeine-laden soft drinks or anxiety at home. Unfortunately over-fatigue does not usually lead to sleep in children; it often brings on night terrors, bed-wetting, sometimes even sleepwalking. Parents who allow young toddlers to fall asleep before the television are setting a pattern of sleep problems.

Anxiety at home and school compounds the problem of sleep. Children are naturally sensitive to the emotional dynamics of adults at home. Marital, family problems and financial worries are “absorbed” in some form by children. Their inability to metabolize these problems is manifested in sleep disorders.


Inadequate Sleep Leads to Behavior Problems

Several research studies have pinpointed inadequate sleep as the culprit behind misbehavior and hyperactivity. According to an article entitled “Inadequate Sleep Leads to Behavioral Problems, Study Finds” that appeared on the Science Daily website on April 28, 3009, researchers from the University of Helsinki found that children with inadequate sleep had high scores on scales measuring anxiety, depression and aggressive behavior.

Sleep problems are therefore risk indicators of emotional and behavioral difficulties. Sleep problems in teens can be a risk indicator for emotional issues because sleep pattern is a biological factor associated with adult depression.

Inadequate Sleep Leads to Poor Academic Performance

Sleep deficit can cause poor cognitive functioning. Better quality sleep in teens has been correlated with higher academic success. According to another Science Daily report dated June 15, 2009 – “Better Sleep is Associated With Improved Academic Success”, new research shows that persistent sleep deficit can produce negative consequences in school performance.

Intermittent episodes of sleep deficit, however, may not be harmful to students who, on the whole, maintain regular and predictable sleep patterns.

The key to healthy sleep for children, then, is teaching them how to develop and maintain good sleep rituals.

Parents Can Teach Good Sleep Rituals

Why are good sleep rituals helpful?

They can train the mind and body to act in specific ways at a specific time. The body can be coaxed through routines to anticipate a specific set of circumstances and response. Such conditioning can set the parameters for healthy sleep hygiene and lifestyle.

  1. Insist on the same bedtime every night so that the child’s body can get used to being tired and falling asleep at the same time each evening.
  2. For older children, five years and older, eliminate nap time during the day.
  3. Cut down television viewing and increase outdoor activities like playing in the park, soccer or hockey practices.
  4. Eliminate sugary and caffeinated soft drinks from your child’s diet.
  5. Maintain a bedtime ritual that involves reading a book together and praying together. Even a brief discussion about the good things that happened during the day followed by a hug should be part of this ritual.

If sleep debt leads to school problems, there is much that parents can do to help their children develop healthy sleep habits. Maintaining a consistent bedtime ritual is one example.