Family Matters

A History of Kids and Sleep: Why They Never Get Enough

Even a century ago, children were getting less sleep than experts recommended.

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For many a frazzled parent, bedtime — their children’s, that is — is the best part of the day. But it can be hard to ease snooze-averse kids into bed, and now a new study confirms that this is an age-old problem: children have consistently gotten less sleep than recommended guidelines, for at least the past 100 years.

Researchers from the University of South Australia did some historical spelunking, looking for every study about sleep duration in children beginning from the end of the 19th century through 2009. They discovered 300 such studies, dating all the way back to a French paper from 1897, and found that both age-specific recommendations for appropriate sleep and the amount of time kids actually spend in dreamland both declined at similar rates: 0.71 minutes per year for recommendations versus o.73 minutes per year for actual sleep duration, according to the study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics. Across the board, children got about 37 minutes less sleep than was recommended.

Another constant: societal hand-wringing over children’s lack of sleep and a tendency to blame the hectic pace of modern life.

“We found that indeed kids are sleeping less,” says senior author Tim Olds, a professor of health sciences at the University of South Australia in Adelaide, who studies health and how we use our time. “People are always recommending kids sleep more than they do.”

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Over the 112 years the study covered, children lost about 75 minutes of shut-eye: in 1897, experts were recommending that kids sleep 1 hr. 15 min. more than was advised in 2009.

What’s perhaps most eye-opening is the researchers’ observation that sleep recommendations are pretty subjective; there’s just not that much empirical evidence about how much sleep children actually need.

So, how much are kids supposed to sleep anyway? The National Sleep Foundation in Arlington, Va., says babies between the ages of 3 to 11 months should snooze for a total of 14 to 15 hours, while toddlers between 1 to 3 years old should get 12 to 14 hours. Preschoolers need 11 to 13 hours, and elementary schoolers should sleep between 10 to 11 hours. Older children and teens need a minimum of 8½ hours.

Assessing sleep needs is complicated because tracking how long a child sleeps doesn’t tell you how long he should be sleeping; he may not be getting enough z’s or he may be getting too many. Other research has found that 20% of kids report they’re sleepy during the day and can’t focus in school; 60% say they’d like to get more sleep. So perhaps they do need more sleep. But in reality, there is almost no evidence about how much sleep kids truly need to function their best. “We think for no particularly good reason that kids need more sleep than they’re getting,” says Olds. “Every so often a group of blokes get together and say, What do you recommend, boys? Should we push it up to 9 hours, 15 minutes? It really is like that, honestly. It’s an arbitrary public-health line in the sand that people draw.”

Throughout the study period, concerns were expressed that modern life and overstimulation prevented children from getting the sleep they need. As far back as the late 19th century, an editorial in the British Medical Journal bemoaned our sleepless society, the stress and bustle of everyday life, the gaslights and the trolley cars. In 1905, one study noted that “this is a sleepless age and more and more … we are turning night into day.” Says Olds: “Throughout the 100-year period, we have been blaming whatever the new technology is — radio, TV, the Internet. Information is coming in so fast that we never wind down.”

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What’s more, different countries have different standards: in Japan, for example, it’s more or less accepted that kids doze off in class because they’ve stayed up late studying. Australian kids sleep almost an hour more a day than American kids, who sleep less than nearly all other children.

“We’re not saying kids don’t need more sleep,” says Olds. “My hunch is yes, they do need more sleep, but we haven’t seen good evidence of that.”

The take-home message, according to Olds? “Never trust sleep experts.”

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