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Restful advice

Children’s sleep influenced by many factors

July 10, 2011
By RODNEY MINOR , The Leader Herald

It is well known that all parents can have great difficulties getting their young children to sleep.

A recently released study suggests parents may want to turn off the violence and the nighttime TV.

The government-funded study, released online Monday by the journal Pediatrics, found sleep problems are more common in 3- to 5-year-olds who watch television after 7 p.m. Watching shows with violence - including kids' cartoons - also was tied to sleeping difficulties.

Article Photos

Dr. Jeff Gardner, a pediatrician at St. Mary’s Healthcare’s Johnstown Family Health?Center, looks at documents pertaining to sleep medicine for children at his office Wednesday.
The Leader-Herald/Rodney Minor

Watching nonviolent shows during the day didn't seem to have any connection with sleep problems in the 617 youngsters studied.

Dr. Maruthi Madhov Sunkara, a pediatrician at Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville, said the results of the study did not surprise him. The study confirms previous research that has already been done, he said.

However, Sunkara said, the study is being released at an important time. Given the increasing prevalence of electronic devices children can watch and use - cell phones, TVs, computers - parents need to know about possible complications.

"[The study] can make people aware of the issues," Sunkara said.

Of course, there are many more things that can affect the quality of a young child's sleep than just the amount of screen time they have.

As Dr. Jeff Gardner, a pediatrician at St. Mary's Healthcare's Johnstown Family Health?Center, pointed out, sleep is an incredibly complicated topic. There are a variety of factors, including age, diet, exercise and underlying medical issues, that can influence how much sleep a child between the ages of 3 and 7 years old gets.

However, the majority of factors affecting a child's sleep are normally under a parent or guardian's control, Gardner said.

For example, a lack of physical exercise during the day can lead to sleep difficulty for children.

Children also should not eat right before they go to bed. Some children will actually have problems with acid reflux.

Products with caffeine and sugar in them should be avoided well before bedtime.

"Glasses of Mountain Dew, with the sugar and caffeine in it, are not good before bed," Gardner said.

Sunkara said inevitably he ends up talking about the amount of screen time a child is getting when a parent talks about having difficulty getting him or her to sleep.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children up to age 2, and no more than 2 hours daily for older children. It also urges pediatricians to ask parents at every checkup how much their children watch television, including whether kids have TVs in their bedrooms, which the academy discourages.

Sunkara said many parents seem OK with their children having screen time, even right before bed, because they believe it will help the child's development.

However, he said, numerous studies have concluded screen time does not help a child's development.

For some parents, Sunkara said, a TV or cell phone can function as a sort of distraction, to make the child stop crying or even get them to eat.

The problem is screen time does not help their development, he said. While spending time in front of a screen, a child also is not developing other skills that will be useful.

Gardner said any light source in a room can stimulate the brain to stay awake. If need be, computers or TVs can be removed from the room if they are interfering with the child going to sleep.

However, sometimes the lack of consistency can affect a child's sleep, Gardner said.

For example, if a child spends half of their time sleeping at one parent's house, and half at the other parent's, the differences in the environment can cause sleep issues.

Sumkara said a set bedtime, during the school year and out of it, also is important.

He recommends young children have one hour of quiet time before they go to bed.

"We all need sleep to recuperate," he said.

Young children go to sleep best with nighttime rituals that help calm them, including bedtime stories and cuddling with parents, said Dr. Marc Weissbluth, a sleep disorders specialist at Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital and author of several books on healthy sleep habits.

Lack of sleep "is as dangerous as iron deficiency" and can cause behavior difficulties, memory problems and academic struggles, he said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.



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