Some of the most common issues that I hear both parents and teachers report having with students is that the child may be easily distracted, excessively tired, has difficulty staying focused, and has issues with hyperactivity. Once parents report these symptoms to their pediatricians, a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is often suspected. But what if your child doesn’t have ADHD; what if they are simply sleepy?

With increased accessibility to electronic devices (smart phones, televisions, tablets, etc.) in their bedrooms, children’s brains are constantly stimulated and the attainment of quality sleep is decreasing. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) recommends that school age children get at least 10-12 hours of sleep a night. However, a 2014 poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation found that school age children actually get an average of only 7-9 hours. According to NHLBI, loss of sleep of over several days, even if only at 1-2 hours per night, can impair body function as if you have not slept at all for 1-2 days! Sleep is important because it helps the brain store and process information that it received during the day, repair heart and blood vessels, and maintain the body’s hormonal balance which controls things like body weight, emotions, immunity, etc. Studies have shown that sleep deprived students are unable to focus, emotionally unstable, and often become hyperactive to combat fatigue. Coincidentally, these symptoms of sleepiness mimic the most common symptoms associated with ADHD.

So what can you do to help rule out chronic sleepiness before we begin to suspect ADHD? Dr. Darius Loghmanee, director of Advocate Christ’s Children’s Sleep Network, has made a few recommendations. First, Make sure your child is attaining quality sufficient amounts of sleep by setting appropriate and consistent bedtimes and adhering to them. A bedtime should allow for at least 10-12 hours of sleep based on their wake time, with a cushion for unexpected events. Ask yourself what time does your child get ready for bed and what time do they actually fall asleep; these are two different things. Delayed onset of sleep decreases total sleep time. In today’s society we are busier than ever and children are often doing homework right up until bedtime. We cannot forget that children need time to unwind and relax before falling asleep just like adults. A bedtime routine helps the body relax and recognize that it is time for bed. Second, children lie awake at night like adults worrying about their task list or social issues for the day to come. To help alleviate this issue, try giving your child a forum outside of the bedroom to talk about their day, worries, successes, to-do lists, etc. to avoid having them obsess over them at bedtime. Third, turn off (or better yet remove) televisions, games, tablets, phones, etc. from the bedrooms as these are stimulating and only increase the time it takes to fall asleep. Bright lights from devices suppress the secretion of the hormone that makes the body fall asleep. Even as adults we are guilty of having to check every notification when our devices are nearby. Also, the usage of electronics is deceptively time consuming as many times a quick check of email, social media, or a game turns into thirty minutes or more of texting, playing, or internet surfing. Finally, listen to your child sleep. Do they snore, cough, etc.? Snoring and coughing throughout the night may be an indication of sleep apnea or another obstructive sleep disorder which may require medical intervention if not related to a cold or congestion.

A study published in a 2012 issue of the journal Pediatrics found that school-age children who were given an extra hour of sleep each night showed an improvement in emotional stability, impulsive behavior, and a reduction in day-time sleepiness. Sleep is a multi-faceted topic that has a profound impact on our daily lives. I hope this inspires you to evaluate the quality of sleep and sleep habits of your children to hopefully improve their daily function in the classroom, and to possibly identify those students who may require further evaluation.

By Nerissa Conley, R.N., PEL-CSN

Ms. Conley is Morgan Park Academy’s school nurse.