The Sleep Scandal of 2012

how much sleep do your kids need

“Here’s what a child’s bedtime looks like to couples expecting their first baby: the nursery is softly lit, the child is sweetly sleepy, the last page of Good night Moon has been read. After that comes the final tuck-in, the gentle kiss, and finally, the quiet tiptoe out of the room.

So how often does this happen after the kids arrive? The answer – rounding to the closest zero – is zero.”

This is the opening paragraph to the article Please, Please Go to Sleep in the March 28th edition of Time. The article goes on to discuss the hubub about a February article published in Pediatrics called Never Enough Sleep: A Brief History of Sleep Recommendations for Children which was talked about just about everywhere else.

I’m sure you’ve all been following the Sleep Recommendation Scandal of 2012 as closely as I have right? Right? Hello? Well just in case you’ve been too busy standing in line for Hunger Games tickets, here’s a brief recap.
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  • The Pediatrics study analyized historical data about recommendations for sleep vs. ACTUAL sleep and determined that recommended sleep has been decreasing just under 1 minute a year since 1897, and that actual sleep has consistently trailed recommended sleep by ~37 minutes.
  • The study included this not-at-all-inflammatory-to-pediatric-sleep-specialists line: A lack of empirical evidence for sleep recommendations was universally acknowledged.
  • The world of pediatric sleep specialists pooped themselves about it.
  • OK I can’t actually confirm the pooping part but they collectively vomited all over the article en masse. This included one rebuttal co-signed by just about every published pediatric sleep researcher on the planet. And Mars.

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One interpretation of the study is that sleep specialists have been pulling sleep targets out of their butts for as long as sleep specialists have existed. And that never, at any point in time, has any parent managed to achieve the level of required sleep for their children. Thus your child’s sleep is a distant windmill and you can tilt at it till your hands bleed but you’re never going to conquer it.

I’m no doctor but I’m also pretty chuffed about this study. Nobody is standing up to defend the 1897 study that suggested your 2 year old should sleep 16 hours a night (although it would be AWESOME if that were true) because Victorian doctors thought so many bizarre things, why single out just one?

But the implication that pediatric sleep specialists (who, to be clear, are DOCTORS who SPECIALIZE in KIDS and SLEEP) have no basis for their recommendations is frustrating. And hinting that recommendations about sleep are bogus and unattainable just gives people room to convince themselves they don’t have a problem.

And that’s a problem.

I often have people tell me, “My kid just doesn’t need that much sleep.” Translation: their kid is barely sleeping. If you press the “my kid doesn’t need that much sleep” people you’ll almost always get regaled with stories of babies who stopped napping at 1, who refuse to go to bed till 11:00 pm and are up with the sun. But it’s OK because that’s “just how their body works.”

Is it really OK? There are two possible truths here.
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  1. It’s true.

    Yay! I am fully meeting my child’s needs and have nothing at all to worry about. Woo hoo!

  2. It’s not true.

    My child is suffering from chronic sleep deprivation and this is a pretty serious issue that impacts their behavior, ability to learn, process sugar, grow, and manage their emotions. This is a problem we need to take seriously and it’s probably not going to be easy to fix.

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If I were that parent I guess I know which option I would want to cling to. And I would probably be keen to find a piece of research which suggested it was true. Even if it wasn’t.

I understand why it is a huge challenge to develop a scientific study that determines conclusively how much a child or adult really needs to sleep. And I know that there will always be a great degree of variability in the results (some of us are short/long sleepers). And perhaps I need to accept that we don’t really know how much sleep our children need. But I do know they need a lot. Here are some other things I know.
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  • 50% of parents of infants and 27% of parents of school aged kids feel their child doesn’t get enough sleep (source: 2004 Sleep Foundation Study)
  • American children get less sleep then kids in almost all other countries. (source: Time article, Sleep Duration in Young Adults)
  • Even small decreases in sleep can have dramatic impact on your child’s ability to function. (source: Lost Hour of Sleep)
  • Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to childhood obesity. (source: Meta Analyis Short Sleep Duration and Obesity)

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There will be a lot of families with chronically sleep deprived kids who will see this study as evidence that they have nothing to worry about. And that’s unfortunate.

I hope that the Sleep Scandal of 2012 results in further funding on kids and sleep so that we can come up with more conclusive research about how sleep impacts our bodies, how much we need, and how critical it is for our children to be happy, healthy, emotionally stable kids. Because there shouldn’t be any debate about that.