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Kids Not Getting Enough Sleep!

Todd Zwillich

Most American children are not getting enough sleep, thanks largely to caffeine consumption and bedroom televisions, according to a poll released Tuesday by the National Sleep Foundation.

The poll shows that kids up to the fifth grade get less sleep on average than experts recommend for optimal learning and good school performance. Nearly 70% of children experience difficulty falling asleep, snoring, or have other sleep problems that can diminish sleep quality, according to the poll of 1,470 of adults who care for a child 10 years old or younger.

"What is troublesome is that the problems start in infancy," says Richard L. Gelula, the foundation's CEO.

Infants aged 3 to 11 months are on average getting 12.7 hours of sleep per day, though experts recommend four to 15 hours, according to the poll. School-aged kids between the first and fifth grade get an average of 9.5 hours per night, which averages out at least 3.5 hours less sleep than they should get each week, it found.

Sleep is closely linked to learning and memory ability, which can both affect school performance. Foul moods and even depression are also tied to chronic sleep deprivation in both children and adults, says Carl E. Hunt, MD, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"Even missing an hour a night, we do pay a price," Hunt, who is a pediatrician, tells WebMD.

Overstimulated Kids?

Many experts blame caffeine and bedroom TVs as part of the problem. One-quarter of all kids over 3 years of age drink at least one caffeinated beverage per day, which according to Tuesday's poll can cut average daily sleep time from 9.7 hours to 9.1 hours.

More than four in 10 school-aged kids also have TVs in their bedrooms, with a two-hour loss of sleep per week. According to Hunt, video games, DVD players, and even text-messaging telephones are part of the problem, too.

"We recommend that the bedroom be used for sleeping and activities having nothing to do with sleep should be out of the bedroom," he says.

'A Change in the Culture'

The poll comes as experts move to make recommendations to improve sleep within an American population that is increasingly sleep-deprived. Some of the problem is caused by a late-night culture that helps people shirk sleep, though millions of people suffer from disorders that prevent good sleep no matter how early they go to bed.

A large percentage of the adult population is thought to have obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder that causes people to repeatedly stop breathing during the night and disrupt sleep. People with apnea also snore excessively because of obstruction to the airway. The disease is common in overweight and obese adults and is closely linked to high blood pressure and heart disease.

Shift workers are also at risk, especially those whose erratic sleep habits can disrupt their ability to operate large vehicles or make snap decisions. "What you really want to do is make a change in the culture of society," says Richard Schuster, MD, director of health systems management at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. "You want the public to start worry about their police officers being tired."

Experts at a NIH sleep conference called on professional societies to help convince more doctors to ask patients about their sleep habits and whether they frequently feel tired during the day.

"A simple, single question could be very informative," says Hunt.

The group also wants to convince everyday people with the message that they are likely to function better at work and at home if they are careful to get enough sleep. Media campaigns and even an effort to convince the U.S. Surgeon General to issue a report on sleep and health may be in the works.

"The general public does not know what it's not normal to be sleepy during the day," says Mark W. Mahowald, MD, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center in Minneapolis.