What is the best part of a Summer vacation? The most frequent response? The long days and nights of lounging, relaxing and sleeping in late of course! All of that will soon be coming to an abrupt end for our youth as the days grow shorter, Fall begins and the school bells ring in. Soon children as young as 6 years old will be rising early to start their days. The debate of sleep has been raised often in the last few years as many feel strongly about the subject one way or another. Is sleep important? Yes. Everyone is starting to come around and agree on that, but the issue lies in a society that has gotten away from knowing how “quality” sleep impacts this dynamic and how sleep needs differ amongst the age groups. The debate of pushing school start times back has proven successful in some areas that have implemented it improving focus, participation and in raising academic testing scores according to sample studies in experimental districts.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has also been leading the debate by recommending in a 2014 press release that “middle and high schools delay the start of class to 8:30 a.m. or later”. Although, recent data from the U.S. Department of Education still shows that more than 80% of public schools in the U.S. start earlier than that. Pushing back start times will align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty. While some debate that starting early rise times will prepare our youth for the reality of becoming independent adults, they fail to take into account that most colleges and universities offer a diverse class start time schedule and that depending on your field of work, early rise times may never be their “norm”. The fundamental factor with the topic of sleep is that we now have the research to show it is vital to our overall health and well-being but as important that recommendations vary per age group.
We do live in an overstimulated society that adds to the sleep issues that have developed but the truth is simple biology is the reason children need more sleep. Teenagers in particular are not getting the recommended amount of sleep leading to sleep deprivation, poor concentration and issues as they develop into adults as a result. Yes, keeping a good bedtime schedule is a great start to helping regulate the sleep-wake cycle for all adolescents but for this particular group even that is not enough to get them rested enough for a 6am wake up time. These start times are mandated by state and federal school policy guidelines but it would seem that if regulating the amount of sodium in school lunches and physical activity are considered part of the foundation for creating healthy students, shouldn’t sleep top that list? Sleep is arguably the best healing mechanism for the body. It is not only important to how our children develop mentally, physically and emotionally but how their health is maintained over time. In the Western New York area, the Erie County Assessment states that we have a growing rate of children who are obese and diabetic. Beyond nutrition and physical activity would we not want to assess the underlying factor that regulates the hormones that control hunger and energy levels?
Most of us no longer live in an area where we have the benefits of peace and quiet, fresh air and an environment that is not polluted with toxins, flooded with fluorescent lighting, where entertainment doesn’t come from a television, computer, tablet or phone, where three well balanced meals are prepared and eaten throughout the day or where water is the choice of beverage over anything and everything caffeinated. My point is we create a world that is unhealthy and then we deny ourselves the one factor that can help us regulate it better and adjust to modern times. Shifting school times could and may have a significant difference for certain age groups but where you live largely plays a role in the initiative of such a change. As a community we have to decide what works for our children and equip ourselves with the tools to make educated decisions about their health and to lead by example. Recognizing the role self-care has in the success of sleep schedules and the relationship your family has with sleep are important as well. Regardless of the side of the table you sit on for this debate, we have to agree that sleep is important. We may be able to advocate for legislation to change school start times but wouldn’t it seem wiser to start with assessing the quality of sleep in your household and implementing strategies where you can make important changes about your health starting tonight?
Soda Kuczkowski is the owner of START WITH SLEEP, an education resource center and retail boutique that focuses on both behavioral and medical sleep health located in Buffalo, NY. She is also the founder of the SE+T™ Sleep Program, a guide for improving sleep quality naturally. She is committed to addressing sleep concerns and questions by providing sleep health education through a channel of various components including sleep consulting, coaching, workshops and health programs.