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Modern Family: Protecting Teens’ Sleep

The other night, my husband and I were counting the ways we’d changed, thanks to the kids, especially when it came to realigning some long-held beliefs. Mea culpa, we may have fallen plonk into parenting gaffes aplenty. Yet, something we are proud of is quickly getting over a mistake—in this case, the mistake of not letting children, especially older ones, sleep in enough.

We didn’t start out wrong-footed. “Sleep is baby’s second food,” the prenatal classes tutored us. Sure—though they never said it would be we who walked around bleary-eyed to ensure that intake. Little beings seem to be born to be night owls, napping longer through the day and needing nonstop entertainment thereafter. No newborn has a honed circadian rhythm or the ability tell dawn from dusk.

What to do except deal with it? Spot the humour where possible? Bathing, massaging, tiring out our kids – none of the usual worked to get them to tumble restfully into a cosy cot. When we stopped fighting and began listening, looking and — more than anything else – playing, we learned our children’s basic pattern and penchant. We noticed the quirkiness of our firstborn, who slept soundest after going to bed with stacks of photo albums within reach. Chuckling as he spotted family and friends in the pictures, he’d rock and clap hands with delight before dozing off with a big beam on his face.

His sister, though, was a fan of the spoken word. Stories were her soporific treat—if they contained some very specific banter. She asked us to assume the voice of an adored hero. “Say it like Ringo!” she would beg, as I tried to interest her in falling asleep with a “railway story.” The only thing that saved me from the bizarre experience of impersonating Ringo Starr as storyteller was her Thomas the Tank Engine videos narrated by the famous Beatle.

But once finally asleep, we let them claim all their rightful hours of slumber and dreams. There was no under or overestimating how much sleep they needed; they simply slept until they were awake.

But how swiftly kids change the sleep score.

The teen years arrived with a vengeance. At one time, the sight of our preteens snoozing beyond the buzz of an alarm clock so infuriated me, I couldn’t bear to hear the sound of my own shrill reproaches. The calm after the storm came only once I decided to understand the science behind sleepy adolescents. I found the pineal gland in the teen brain does not respond to light and dark as it does in an adult brain. It releases melatonin, the sleep-promoting hormone, later into the evening, and levels remain elevated into the morning hours. It’s not until the age of 20 to 25 that the brain’s frontal lobes reach total maturity and the impossible, insomniac child morphs into a fully functional, earlier-to-bed adult.

Research suggests that adolescents crave an average of 9.25 hours of sleep each night to function at their best. This means they still need more sleep than an adult to be alert during the day. But it isn’t only about the quantity and timing—the quality of sleep is also vital. A child saying, “shush” to people pottering around noisily while they nap isn’t always acting spoilt—it may be sleep-preservation.

In the US, there is a Start School Later movement backed by sleep scientists, educators and economists. Their belief that an early start is unhealthy, counterproductive and incompatible with adolescent needs is supported by social behaviour studies. A more local attempt at this failed last year: A school in Kandivali in north Bombay announced starting classes for all grades an hour later than usual, after its administration had weighed the advantages of an extra morning hour for families to use as they pleased. But it was protesting parents who said they preferred the early-to-rise schedule, and the idea was shelved.

So sleeping in seems less lazy than it once did. Without a doubt, the adolescent mind must play and rest differently from adults’–and we must let it. We can’t force it to match our own schedule without shortchanging our children. The sooner we absorb this, the more at peace we’ll live with the next generation.

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