With no firm science, sleep standards are slipping

NEW YORK Mon Feb 13, 2012 3:29am EST

Four and a half month-old twins Corina and Dario wear t-shirts with the Swiss national flags as they sleep in a baby carriage during Swiss national holiday celebrations in the central Swiss town of Brunnen August 1, 2008. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Four and a half month-old twins Corina and Dario wear t-shirts with the Swiss national flags as they sleep in a baby carriage during Swiss national holiday celebrations in the central Swiss town of Brunnen August 1, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Kids never got enough shuteye, even back in grandpa's day.

That's according to a century's worth of expert advice and sleep studies, which a team of researchers has now distilled into a brief report in the journal Pediatrics.

"There is a common belief that children are not getting enough sleep and that children's total sleep time has been declining," Lisa Anne Matricciani of the University of South Australia in Adelaide and colleagues write.

And while it's true that kids aren't getting as much sack time now as they were in the late 1800s, that doesn't mean experts weren't worried back then, too.

In fact, as the Australian researchers combed through older and older literature, the recommended sleep time was always a good half-hour higher than what kids, or their parents, said they got.

"No matter how much sleep children are getting, it has always been assumed that they need more," the team says.

So why are the standards slipping?

According to Matricciani and company, there just isn't any good science on which to base recommendations. They went through 32 sets of sleep advice, and only one provided any reasoning for its guidance: the actual sleep of 500 healthy kids.

Today, the National Institutes of Health says adults commonly need between eight and eight and a half hours of sleep, whereas newborns should get 16 to 18 hours a day.

Children fall in between, with preschoolers needing 11 to 12 hours of slumber and older kids and adolescents 10 hours.

Those standards are based on how long people sleep when they're not interrupted. But one expert told Reuters Health there is still little ironclad science behind the numbers.

"We need to do due diligence and do the nitty-gritty effort of measuring sleep in a large group of the population to find out what's normal," said Dr. David Gozal, an expert in childhood sleep problems at the University of Chicago. "That has never been done."

He went on, "If you don't know what's normal because you haven't measured it, then your recommendations are going to reflect what you believe is normal, although that's not necessarily correct."

That also explains why expert recommendations have been shifting downward over time, Gozal said, because physicians are influenced by changing societal expectations the same as everybody else.

"It only reflects the nature of our parental expectations," mused Gozal.

Based on 218 articles that contained self- or parent-reported sleep for children, the Australian researchers estimate that kids' actual sleep duration fell by 73 minutes over a century.

By comparison, recommended sleep times dropped by 71 minutes, but remained 37 minutes above the estimates of real sleep.

Like other researchers, Gozal blames our shorter nights on the accelerated pace of modern society with its 24-7 demands on parents and kids alike.

"The concern that kids aren't sleeping enough is real," he said. "More than 80 percent of parents need to wake up their kids, indicating that their kids don't get enough sleep."

Although it's next to impossible to prove conclusively that diminished shuteye is taking a toll on our health, several studies have linked it to a plethora of ailments -- from obesity in American kids to attention problems in Korean high school students to heart disease around the globe.

"We are in fact reducing the amount of sleep as a society, and that is translating, at least in my mind, to an increased risk of many diseases," said Gozal.

So how do you know when your kid has had enough z's?

"You will know that your child is sleeping enough if they wake up on their own rather than being awoken," Gozal advised. "If they don't get up on time, make them go to bed earlier."

SOURCE: bit.ly/cxXOG Pediatrics, online February 13, 2012.

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Comments (4)
ancientWisdom wrote:
Thus far the focus is all on quantity, not quality. I believe (and I’m sure many will disagree), that humans did not evolve to sleep alone. My wife and I sleep in a loving naked cuddle, and usually wake up feeling refreshed and invigorated. The atrocity called twin beds owes its existence to 1930s movie censors who thought it obscene to show a man and a woman in the same bed. Another atrocity is the crib, which from the infant’s viewpoint must seem like a prison cell, bars and all. Cradles are better, but the family bed is best, despite the common fear that an infant might see love happening, which is considered awful, while it’s seen as OK for kids to see scenes of violence, in which people appear to be killing other people.
Indeed, the research remains to be done.

Feb 13, 2012 4:38am EST  --  Report as abuse
Janelte wrote:
Looks to me like a big problem with a very simple solution. Parents just should stop waking up their kids. Don’t wake up babies and todlers because you want to go somewhere. Don’t wake up school going kids because the school bus is coming. Bring your kids in bed early. Dont wait till they fall asleep on the floor or tell you “I’m sleepy.” It’s the parent’s responsibility to send kids in bed so early that they wake up in time. That’s the way to find out how much sleep a kid needs. Don’t wait for a ‘Scientist’ to find out.

Feb 13, 2012 6:09am EST  --  Report as abuse
LaterSchool wrote:
If waking spontaneously is the measure of enough sleep, then American teens are in huge trouble. With many high schools now starting in the 7 o’clock hour, and bus runs starting as early as 5:20, many teens routinely 6 or fewer hours of sleep a night. Even if the estimated 9 is too many, that’s a major problem. Politics, not science or commonsense, underlie these hours and the inability of local schools to change them. That’s why we’re petitioning for a minimum earliest start time, a proven way to increase teen sleep and boost overall health & learning. You can read & sign here: http://bit.ly/tWa4dS

Feb 13, 2012 7:17am EST  --  Report as abuse
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