By Michael Breus, PhD, ABSM
The National Sleep Foundation has released its annual Sleep in America Poll. This year, the poll examines sleep in the modern American family. How well—or not—are parents and children sleeping today? What are the challenges facing families in their pursuit of high-quality, plentiful sleep? What are the strategies that parents are using to help their children sleep, and how well are those strategies working? These are some of the questions that this year’s sleep survey investigates. The answers paint a picture of American families needing more sleep than they are getting, and struggling to contend with challenges to sleep that are a product of technologically-driven and highly-scheduled lives.
The survey included 1,103 adults with at least one child between the ages 6-17 living in their households. Among respondents, 54% were mothers. The families surveyed varied in size: 40% of respondents had 2 children, 24% had 1 child, and another 24% had 3 children. Eleven percent of respondents had 4 or more children in their households. Adults reported on their own sleep and answered sleep questions about their children.
The results indicate challenges to sleep within American families that are, in fact, distinctly modern. Despite a high level of awareness of the importance of sleep to health and well being, neither children nor their parents are getting enough high quality sleep. This appears to be in part because of a heavy rotation of evening activities and commitments for both adults and children. Technology has taken up residence in most bedrooms—parents’ and children’s—to the detriment of sleep for both. The survey also found that parents’ own behaviors about sleep, as well as their willingness to set rules for their children’s sleep, can have a significant effect on sleep within the family:
- There is broad consensus among parents about the importance of sleep to their family’s mental and physical health. More than 90% of parents reported their belief that sleep is highly important to the health and well being of both adults and children in their family.
- Despite this recognition about the importance of sleep, both children and their parents are struggling to get enough sleep, and to sleep well. Fewer than 45% of children between the ages 6-17 are sleeping 9 or more hours per night. Recommendations for sufficient sleep amounts for children vary by age, but at all stages of childhood and adolescence, children need at least 9 hours of sleep per night. Younger school-age children need in excess of 10-11 hours nightly.
- As children age, their nightly sleep shortens, according to these results. Among 12-14 years olds, less than a third were reported to be sleeping 9 hours a night. Among older adolescents ages 15-17, a majority—56%–were reported to be sleeping no more than 7 hours nightly.
- Researchers compared the amount of sleep to quality of sleep, and found that children who slept less also were more likely to experience lower quality sleep. Among children who slept fewer than 7 hours a night, more than a quarter—28%–were reported to have poor quality sleep.
- Parents tended to rate their children’s sleep quality as significantly better than their own. Only 13% of adults reported their sleep as excellent, compared to 42% who rated their children’s sleep this highly.
- When asked about the challenges they face in getting enough sleep for themselves and their children, parents cited busy schedules as the most common obstacle. Evening activities were the most frequently cited challenge, both for parents and for children. For children, homework was also often reported as a nightly obligation that delayed bedtime or otherwise made sleep more difficult.
A substantial majority of adults and children are sleeping in proximity to at least one or more electronic device, according to the survey results. Televisions, computers, tablets, smartphones, gaming and music devices are commonly found in children’s bedrooms as well as in their parents’:
- 89% of adults and 75% of children have at least 1 electronic device in their bedrooms. Roughly half of children—51%–and 68% of adults have 2 or more electronic devices in their bedrooms.
- Televisions are the most common electronic devices in both parents’ and children’s bedrooms. MP3 players, tablets and smartphones are also common in both.
- The results also indicate that these devices are frequently left on during the night, rather than turned off before bedtime.
Electronic devices pose serious hazards to sleep when they take up residence in the bedroom. These devices emit light that disrupts sleep cycles and alters sleep-related hormone levels. The noise and stimulation that they provide is counterproductive to sleep, pushing back bedtimes and risking waking during the night when they are left on. It’s not surprising, then, that the survey found children with electronic devices in their bedrooms slept less and experienced lower quality sleep than those children without these gadgets in their bedrooms. Sleep quality suffered most dramatically when the devices were regularly left on during the night. And the more devices were present, the worse children slept.
Despite the sleep problems associated with electronics in the bedroom, many adults and children use these devices as a means to fall asleep, according to the survey. Sixty-six percent of adults reported a habit of relying on television or videos to help them fall asleep, and 37% used the internet. Parents reported that their children often used these same tactics to help them sleep: 47% of children were reported to watch television to fall asleep with some regularity, and 27% played games or used the internet to help bring about sleep.
One of the more striking details about how technology is intruding on sleep? The prevalence of texting and emailing after initially falling asleep, among both children and their parents. More than one quarter of adults—26%–either read or sent emails and text messages after first falling asleep for the night, as did 16% of children. More than half of the children who texted and emailed during the night had parents who did so as well.
This points out another important finding from the survey: the influence of parents’ sleep -and-technology-related habits on their children’s own sleep behaviors. The results indicate that children with electronic devices in their bedrooms are significantly more likely to have parents’ who also have these devices in their bedrooms. Children who let their devices run during the night are also more likely to have parents who do the same.
Ready for some good news about parental influence on kids’ sleep? Parents who establish sleep-related rules and enforce them consistently report their children sleep longer and better than children whose parents don’t apply regular rules to bedtime. These rules include consistent bedtimes, and also govern before-bed activities like watching television, using phones, playing video games, and drinking soda with caffeine. Children in households with sleep rules that are routinely enforced sleep an average of 1.1 additional hours per night.
There are a lot of moving pieces in this picture of the American family’s sleep life—busy schedules, crowded and active evening hours, constant temptation from technology. These threats to high-quality and plentiful sleep are not going away—in fact, they’re more likely to proliferate. It is our modern-day challenge to find ways to manage these ever-present demands with balance and moderation—and with an eye on protecting sleep.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™