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Can Children Develop a Sleep Debt?

Imagine walking around all day carrying a backpack loaded with bricks.  That is the analogy most often used to explain a sleep debt.

Each night that you either go to bed an hour later, or get up an hour earlier, will result in a brick being added to your “backpack.”  But we aren’t usually talking about one night, and it isn’t usually only one hour!  As we accumulate more hours of lost sleep, our backpacks literally weigh us down, and we get sick.

We, as a society, are chronically sleep deprived.  One of the most interesting statistics on sleep debt is that there are 7% MORE car accidents in the Spring when we set our clocks back an hour, and 7% FEWER accidents in the Fall when we get an extra hour of sleep?!  That an hour difference in sleep can make that much of a difference is disturbing.

So what about kids and sleep debt? I recently wrote an article about this very subject!

One scenario that comes to mind is that both parents work and they keep the child up late so they can spend some time with him or her.  Another is that children are over-scheduled and have too many play dates and after-school activities, that there is hardly enough time to do homework and eat dinner AND get to bed at a reasonable hour. (Here is an article I wrote about over-scheduling and sleep for the Examiner.)

But the most common scenario I see is that children just don’t have the skills to fall asleep independently and the parents struggle each night with their “sleep issues.”  Bedtime is a struggle, night wakings are a problem and the children aren’t able to settle for nice, restful naps.

When children are going to bed late and fully waking after one (or more) sleep cycles during the night, they are likely developing a sleep debt.

The best thing you can do is to encourage healthy sleep habits and teach them how to fall asleep without you, so when they do momentarily wake during the night, they won’t need your help to get them back to sleep!

Photo: Marcol /


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