Turns out, those Zzs are super important.

By Amanda Chan
Updated March 07, 2016
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Sleep is so deceptive. It’s such a simple, basic, human act—yet it’s wildly important to every aspect of our lives. Without it, our thinking gets muddled, emotions get frazzled, and mistakes are more likely. (Not to mention, it’s a vital process to our health!)

Sleep can be hard enough to figure out as adults, but it can seem an even more daunting subject when it comes to our children. How much shuteye should they be getting? Why are they having such a hard time keeping a bedtime? Can inadequate sleep affect them at school?

We took a look at the research, recommendations, and expert advice—including tips from psychologist and sleep expert Jodi Mindell, PhD, associate director of the Sleep Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia—to pull the covers back on what parents need to understand about their kids and teens and sleep.

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1 Experts Do Offer Recommendations for How Much Sleep Kids Should Get

And that number changes as they get older. In fact, the National Sleep Foundation issued new guidelines at the beginning of last year:

Newborns (0 to 3 months): 14 to 17 hours each day
Infants (4 to 11 months): 12 to 15 hours
Toddlers (1 to 2 years): 11 to 14 hours
3- to 5-year-olds: 10 to 13 hours
6- to 13-year-olds: Nine to 11 hours
Teens (14 to 17 years): Eight to 10 hours

2 A Lot of Kids and Teens Are Sleep-Deprived. A Lot

Teens are getting less and less sleep, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, which examined the sleep of more than 270,000 teens over the course of 10 years. According to the findings, 72 percent of 15-year-olds in 1991 clocked at least seven hours of sleep a night, but only 63 percent of 15-year-olds in 2012 were getting that much. Not getting enough sleep seemed especially problematic for teens who are female, of a racial/ethnic minority, or of a lower socioeconomic status, according to the Pediatrics study.

In fact, Mindell says insufficient sleep is probably the most prevalent sleep issue she sees—and for children, it can manifest in crankiness, irritability, or being overactive. For a teenager, it might mean having trouble regulating moods or emotions, or struggling to get up in the morning. That being said, there are sleep disorders beyond insufficient sleep. Be especially alert if you have good sleep hygiene rules in place, but your child still doesn’t seem to be getting enough shuteye. "Does your child snore? Do they have something that physically or mentally bothers them, like with restless legs syndrome? Or maybe your child has an anxiety issue, and so is staying up all night, worrying," Mindell says. If you’re dealing with any of these, be sure to talk to your health care provider.

3 Red Flags Can Help You Identify If Your Child Isn’t Getting Enough Sleep Each Night

Mindell suggests asking yourself these four questions:

1. Is it a struggle waking your child up each morning?
2. Does your child always sleep for at least two hours more on weekends or non-school days than on weekdays?
3. Does your child regularly fall asleep in the car, at school, or other times when he or she shouldn’t be sleeping?
4. Is your child different—happier, more energetic, etc.—on days he or she gets more sleep?

"If any of these are true, then you need to think about getting more sleep for your child," Mindell says. After all, there’s even research to back up that not enough shuteye can seriously tamper with your emotional responses.

4 Your Child’s After-School Snack or Beverage Can Affect How Well He or She Falls Asleep at Night

Mindell calls it a "sleep stealer": hidden caffeine in food and drinks or caffeinated beverages that are consumed in the afternoon, but still affect sleep at night. “Many parents don’t realize what things have caffeine in it, and how much caffeine they have,” Mindell says. While she doesn’t advise kids having caffeine in the first place, she notes that they definitely "shouldn’t have it past early afternoon, because that’s when it can really impact sleep." Research has shown a link between consumption of caffeine by adolescents and reports of restlessness, fidgeting, and problems sleeping.

5 Too Many Extra-Curricular Activities Could Be Hurting Your Child’s Sleep

Band practice followed by dance after school, with a tutoring session in between? "There are so many sports and extra-curricular activities in the evening that can interfere with sleep. If they’re not getting home until 9, then yes, that will interfere with their sleep," Mindell says. "Parents need to pick and choose what their child does, and they also need to speak up and really encourage schools to move extra-curricular activities to earlier [in the afternoon]."

6 A Too-Heavy Course Load Could Be Messing With Zzs, Too

A 2014 study from Stanford researchers in the Journal of Experimental Education examined the homework loads of more than 4,000 high-schoolers in California. They found that many of the students reported that their homework was actually leading to health problems and trouble sleeping at night.

7 Your Child’s Lack of Sleep May Be the Reason for That Cold That Just Won’t Go Away

Not getting enough rest has a negative effect on our body’s production of cytokines (proteins that help to battle illness). Research has shown a link in teens between sleeping less at night and frequency of falling ill. And a recent study in the journal Sleep identified an association between getting fewer than six hours of sleep a night and being more likely to catch a cold. While that study was conducted in adults, study researcher Aric Prather, PhD, tells Real Simple that the results might also apply to children too, though further research would be needed.

8 Going to Bed Too Late Could Actually Affect Your Teen’s Grades…

That’s according to a recent study in the Journal of Sleep Research. Researchers from Uni Research, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Ørebro University, and University of California, Berkeley, examined data from thousands of teens in Norway to find that those who hit the hay between 10 and 11 p.m. had the best grades, with less sleep correlating with poorer grades among all the teens.

9 … And Your Teen’s Weight

While a 2015 study in the journal Sleep did not prove that late nights caused weight gain, it did show an association between fewer Zzs and higher Lbs in teens. Specifically, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, found a correlation between a 2.1 increase in body mass index (or BMI, a ratio of height to weight used to gauge underweight, overweight, and obesity) for every hour of sleep lost by the adolescents in the study (tracked over five years).

10 Your Teen’s Phone May Be Distracting Him or Her From Sleep

If you have a teen with a cell phone, you know that it can practically take the jaws of life to pry that thing from their hands. And texting—or gaming, or Snapchatting, or Instagramming, or whatever else—when they should be going to sleep, could be taking a toll on their grades, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Child Neurology. Researchers from Rutgers University found that teens who messaged on their phones for more than 30 minutes after lights out were sleepier and did worse in school than those who messaged for fewer than 30 minutes or not at all after lights out.

That’s why Mindell recommends banning electronics from the bedroom after a certain time at night—"and I think that rule has to be a family-wide rule, which means everybody plugs in on the kitchen counter," she says.

11 Electronics Can Also Hurt Sleep in a Deeper Way

They don’t just hamper kids’ and teens’ sleep by being a distraction—the light emitted from the gadgets could impair Zzs on a biological level. "Not only is technology really engaging, it emanates light that interferes with and suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin," Mindell says. In fact, a small, recent study from the Lighting Research Center at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute even suggests that teens are more sensitive to the light emitted from electronics than adults.

"So, we really want to move away from all gadgets before bed," she says. "Stick with the old-time, favorite bedtime activities—we want kids reading books, talking to their parents, doing something relaxing."