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September 20, 2010

With our increasingly "plugged in" lifestyles, the ubiquitous availability of entertainment, and the trend to over-schedule the kids, something's gotta give. Too often, it's sleep — our own and our childrens'.

Separate studies from the University of Michigan shed new light on some of the many recently understood benefits of adequate sleep. One study found that more sleep — not more income — made the biggest contribution to working women's happiness. Intriguingly, it took only one extra hour of sleep at night to significantly boost a sense of personal contentment.

Another study found that third and sixth grade children who slept fewer than nine hours per night were at higher risk for being overweight. And for every additional hour of sleep, the risk decreased. Neuroscientists have come to believe that sleep is how our brains consolidate the effects of our waking experiences — taking what happens in our daily lives and transforming it into a kind of permanent "imprint" in the brain. Examples include athletic skills that become more solidly embedded during sleep, or classroom knowledge that becomes more embedded in students' minds as a result of sleep.

Here are some sleep tips to consider: Follow the National Sleep Foundation's recommendations, especially on school/work nights:

  • Toddlers: 12-14 hours
  • Preschoolers: 11-13 hours
  • Elementary & Middle Schoolers: 10-11 hours
  • Teens: 8-1/2 to 9-1/2 hours
  • Adults: 7-9 hours

Wind down earlier in the evening. Consider getting homework underway before dinner, or cutting corners on the nighttime routine — shorter baths and less TV, for instance. Don't be intimidated when the children pout and complain about a "too early" bedtime. Your job isn't to keep them happy, but to keep them healthy and at their all-around best. Sufficient sleep is an important part of that. Explain to your children what happens when we're sleep deprived: we feel grouchier, our thinking isn't as sharp, we have trouble paying attention, there's less energy. Few kids have been taught about the purpose of adequate sleep. Practice what you preach and head to bed yourself. Record that late night TV show to view at another time, and set yourself a curfew beyond which you won't check email. While it's tempting to catch up on your to-do list once the kids are off to bed, the greater benefit may come from catching those extra Zs.