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Are Virginia's Kids Getting Enough Sleep?

Chris Winter is a neurologist and author of The Rested Child. As an expert on sleep, he’s heard from plenty of parents who’ve gotten the wrong diagnosis for kids who stay up or sleep late.

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“My son wants to get out of bed in the afternoon. Okay, well he’s clearly depressed. My kid taps his pencil on the desk all the time and is really disruptive in school. Okay, well he has ADHD.”

In fact, he says, feeling tired makes kids uncomfortable, so they may behave badly – trying to wake themselves up. Winter says we’re born with tendencies when it comes to when and how much we sleep. That doesn’t always match with school schedules or extra-curricular activities.

“Because most kids, academically and intellectually, peak around 4 in the afternoon. Schools around here are out by 4 in the afternoon, so if you’ve got a kid who’s somewhat of a night owl, and he’s got calculus first period and he doesn’t do that well, it’s because his sleep characteristics and genetics were not aligned with the public school he attends.”

Winter says it is possible to help children adjust their sleep patterns with scheduled meals, outside exercise and social interaction during the day -- dimming the lights and lowering the thermostat at night.

“We do this all the time with the professional athletes we work with. If you’re really morning oriented and you play professional basketball, it’s not a great thing for you to be a real morning person, because nothing you do that matters happens in the morning. There’s no such thing as an NBA game that tips off at 10 a.m.

He advises parents that video games are stimulating – designed to be somewhat addictive, and that doesn’t make for an easy transition to sleep. Working or playing on a phone or computer can also cause problems, and in the age of COVID it’s especially hard to separate students from their screens.

“With school being even more integrated into the phone and the computer, it’s becoming more and more difficult for parents to separate. “Okay, we’re going to have two hours of screen time if you do your homework.’ Well the homework is happening on screen time by and large, so how are you controlling what your kids are actually doing when they say they’re in their room doing their homework? These are complicated situations that have a direct and negative impact on our children’s sleep.”

He suggests parents work with their child’s school, to ensure kids aren’t getting too much homework or too many tests on a given day, and to improve the odds for academic success by scheduling challenging subjects when children are at their best.

“You’ve scheduled my daughter for calculus first period. She is a night owl. I actually found an assessment in Chris’s book about how to determine a child’s chronotype and did it, and here it is. See, she falls in the highest category of night owl! Therefore, I would really like her to be put into Mrs. Ankrum’s calculus class at the end of the day, so at least she has a fighting chance of doing this difficult class at a time when her brain is ready to do it, and I’d her study hall and gym class to be first thing in the morning.”

If the school is not willing to do that, Winter suggests Plan B.

“Maybe she takes calculus at a community college or online.”

There may also be medical reasons why children struggle to sleep, but Winter says pediatricians and family doctors get little training in sleep disorders and may not actually understand the need for specialized care. There are more than 80 different medical reasons why people have trouble sleeping. A specialist can order a laboratory test showing what the brain and the body are doing as we sleep and that could lead to an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment.