Working to get kids more sleep

Jul 29, 2014

Many kids will start school in the next few weeks and that means no more sleeping in. But some experts and parents are trying to get kids more shuteye year-round. They say it could help lower the risk of behavioral issues, obesity and low academic performance. Illinois Public Radio's Mariam Sobh reports.

At 13-years-old Annaliza Hammond should have all of the energy in the world. Instead, her teacher was scolding her for nearly dozing off in class on a daily basis.

“She told my parents that she saw that I was going to fall asleep and if I didn’t call my parents she knew that she was going to."

Annaliza’s mom Kimberly had to wake her up every day for school.

“She had dark circles under her eyes She’d be tired and then she’d be more wound up because she’d be trying to keep herself awake. She just couldn’t focus”. 

Annaliza struggled to keep her grades up and says she has no idea how she managed to maintain A’s and B’s.

Kimberly says a pediatrician eventually diagnosed Annaliza as having ADD and ADHD.

“I just never felt that gut instinct that was the problem.” 

Kimberley ended up taking Annaliza to Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago for a sleep study. There she was diagnosed with hypersomnia, meaning her body went through each stage of sleep too quickly. And that’s especially bad for developing minds.

“The brain doesn’t function very well, there are changes in mood, changes in the ability to maintain attention, changes in the ability to memorize, changes in the ability to solve problems and do what we call executive function.”

Dr. David Gozal is a leading practitioner in sleep medicine at the University of Chicago. He says other consequences to not getting enough sleep include lowered metabolism and the risk for obesity. Gozal says an extraordinary number of young people deal with sleep issues.

“80% of kids today their parents have to wake them up to go to school. and that indicates they still need more sleep but they’re not getting it.” 

According to Gozal, studies show that students at schools that start just 30 minutes later than normal schedules show fewer instances of aggression and lack of focus.

Annaliza’s troubles at school were caused by obstructed breathing. So, she got help from Pediatric Dentist Dr. Kevin Boyd.

“The brain won't let them sleep and do all those cycles, because it’s like I need more air! I’m going to have to make you wet your bed or get up to go to the bathroom or grind your teeth, nightmares, night terrors, talking in your sleep all those things will happen because the brain is trying to get more air. So it wont let you get into a deep sleep where you don’t need as much oxygen .” 

Dr. Boyd works on changing the shape of children’s jaws to increase airflow. Kimberly says the impact on Annaliza has been profound.

“Her last sleep study, she didn’t snore, she didn’t grind her teeth, she didn’t have restless leg, she had none of those things she had previously.” 

Annaliza is now healthier, her weight is stabilizing, she’s more alert in class and she’s finally able to wake on her own during the week.

Those results are what organizations like Start School Later aim to see in larger groups. Heather Macintosh is with the national campaign. She says kids today are being asked to get up even before adults.

“We’re cutting their opportunity to sleep down to 5 or 6 hours a night depending on personal schedules.”

Macintosh says she wants the work of Gozal and others to inform public policy and help a group of students who are already at risk. Part of Gozal and his wife’s research shows that low income children have higher rates of sleep issues.

“We’d like science and research to guide school decisions rather than how the bus schedule works or after somebody's after school activities.” 

Because of the efforts of Macintosh’s organization, schools in at least 42 states now start later.

Illinois schools however, have yet to join the trend.