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When Your Preteen is Tired

Understanding How Sleep Affects Your Preteen

What is happening to your preteen? Your once active child has suddenly become as much of a couch fixture as the cushions are. They ooze around the house as slow as pudding, yawning and stretching, as if they hadn't just woke from a marathon snooze an hour ago. Everyone knows that teenagers are famous sleepers, but preteens?

Too Much Too Soon Too Early

Oftentimes the culprit is their schedule. Candice Haaga's 12-year-old son has become more and more sluggish as the school year wore on.

"I think the ridiculously early start time for school is partly to blame," says Haaga, mother of two from Rockville, Md. "He has to get up at 6:20 a.m. daily to catch his 7:15 a.m. bus to start school at 8 a.m. Sometimes I think he's upset or mad about something, and it turns out he's just tired."

Being over-tired can cause attitude problems as well as difficulties with focus and concentration at school. "When overtired from too little sleep, my 12-year-old son acts apathetic, doesn't smile and speaks more slowly," says Haaga. "He is more cranky, gets upset more easily, talks less and is generally less responsive."

Haaga's son is not alone in having a tight schedule that doesn't allow a preteenager to get the sleep they need. It seems as if it is almost epidemic. According to a national study conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan, from 1981 to 1997, children's free time declined by 12 hours per week. Free time is often down time, helping your child unwind, which in turn leads to better quality sleep.

Early Puberty May Be to Blame

While early school mornings and over-scheduling can lead to a sleepy preteen, oftentimes there are very real physiological reasons your 9- to 13-year-old seems to be exhausted. Dr. Kyle Johnson, associate director of the Oregon Health & Science University's Sleep Medicine Program, believes that while the vast majority of preteens are not getting enough sleep because of increasing social and academic pressures, there are those who seem to be at the mercy of an early adolescence.

"Research demonstrates that children delay their sleep schedules as they proceed through puberty," says Dr. Johnson. "This delay in sleep schedules seems to be biologically driven and influenced by sociocultural changes. Some preteens mature sooner than others, and these kids may be proceeding through puberty at this age."

Potential Sleep Problems

Numerous sleep disorders can present at this age including obstructive sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, insomnia and circadian rhythm disorders such as delayed sleep phase disorder.

"Parents need to ask themselves if the sleepiness is interfering with daytime functioning or causing mood problems on a continuing basis," says Dr. Johnson. "Parents should seek consultation with a physician experienced in pediatric sleep problems if a child is excessively sleepy and is snoring or gasping for breath while sleeping, since these are risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea."

Restless leg syndrome may be present if a child has trouble initiating sleep and is complaining of leg cramps or "creepy crawly" feelings in their legs, especially if there is a family history of restless leg syndrome. This syndrome is generally felt at night and may contribute to your preteen's ability to get quality sleep.

Adults who suffer from delayed sleep phase disorder are frequently called night owls, as they often aren't ready to sleep until 2 a.m. or so, but this disorder can affect the preteen, as well. The primary symptoms of delayed sleep phase syndrome are an extreme difficulty falling asleep at normal hours and not being able to wake easily the next morning. This can be extremely hard for an adult with a morning job, let alone a child who must get up for school.

The best way to judge if your preteen has any of these problems is to observe their waking and sleep patterns. If you suspect their sleepiness is caused by something other than poor sleep habits, it may be time to contact your physician.

Teaching Good Sleep Habits

Pediatric pulmonologist Dr. Robert Schoumacher is the director of the Pediatric and Adolescent Sleep Center at Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center in Memphis, Tenn. He is passionate about teaching your children good sleep patterns.

Dr. Schoumacher believes a healthy preteen who is getting enough sleep and is not going through early adolescence is not tired. "In research on patients of this age, they have been described as the most alert humans on the planet," he says. "There may have been some gradual erosion of bedtime standards. It seems clear to me that many children in our society are not getting as much sleep as they need and are not getting as much sleep as their parents did at the same age."

Dr. Schoumacher suggests that while there are a number of societal factors, there are also some physiologic factors that come into play. For example, TV, computer use and video games are increasingly popular, but they are a very poor form of activity in the hour or so before bedtime.

"They provide too much light directly into the child's eyes, which can interfere with the body's natural circadian rhythm," says Dr. Schoumacher. "They are also too stimulating to permit the child to wind down and get ready for sleep. Strenuous physical activity such as roughhousing or pillow fights also interferes with the body's preparations for sleep. Reading, bath time, some kinds of music and family time are much more appropriate in the crucial 30 to 60 minutes before bed."

It turns out that it is up to parents to make sure their children are getting enough sleep at this age. Telling them it's time for bed at age 12 is still OK to do.

"It is the last age where we parents have enough control to set these limits, and it is very important that we do so," says Dr. Schoumacher. "Our children are not likely to learn good sleep habits as teenagers if we don't show that we take this matter seriously when they are preteens. We should set a reasonable bedtime for them and enforce it, we should prohibit activities that interfere with quality sleep right before bedtime, and we should make sure their sleep environment is restful."

The average 9- to 12-year-old child needs 10 hours of sleep per night. The amount of sleep that your child needs may be an hour or so more or less than that without being in any way abnormal. The correct amount of sleep for a given child is the amount that allows him to be maximally alert during the subsequent day.

"One good way to know that the amount of sleep is adequate is that the child gets out of bed easily and doesn't require any extra sleep time on the weekends," says Dr. Schoumacher.

The importance of an adequate amount of sleep is incalculable for your preteen. Sleep is just as important and integral to a healthy lifestyle as are diet and exercise.

"No child (or adult!) can be at their best when they are sleepy," says Dr. Schoumacher. "It is bound to affect school performance, social development and general health and happiness. So help them get more and better sleep."

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