Your Kid's Night Owl Tendencies Might Be In His DNABy LaDawn Fletcher
It’s 10pm in the Fulbright’s Tarrant County home. Will, 11, and Betsy, 5, have been in bed since 8:30pm. Will’s sound asleep, but Betsy’s wide awake, playing in her bed and talking to her dolls.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an exceptional night but has become more of the norm, admits Megan Fulbright, Will and Betsy’s mom.
“[Betsy’s] not disruptive,” Fulbright says. But it makes morning difficult — really difficult. Fulbright physically removes her preschooler from her bed and seats her at the breakfast table each morning. Luckily, there’s no tardy policy in pre-K, but the Fulbrights worry that this pattern could create even bigger problems when Betsy starts kindergarten in the fall.
Experts confirm that the concern is warranted. Kids, like Betsy, with night-owl tendencies are at a greater risk for academic, emotional and behavioral problems, regardless of how many hours of sleep a child actually gets a night.
It’s all related to our internal central clock, which are individual and varied, controlling the circadian rhythms, the 24-hour cycles of sleeping and waking, eating and activity and so much more.
“This master clock sits in your brain and helps to regulate all the other clocks in the cells of your body,” says Dr. Brandy M. Roane, a licensed clinical health psychologist and certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist for Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth. “Just like we use clocks to tell us what time of day it is, this clock tells your cells what they need to do and when they need to do it.”
And research now suggests that a child’s (as well as adult’s) preference for early or late sleep patterns, also known as chronotypes, may be partly rooted in her genes (Fulbright says her husband, a police officer who works the night shift, is just like Betsy), though environment and age also play a part. The underlying biology can be traced in the timing of surges in melatonin, the hormone that helps us sleep.
But a child’s emotional and behavioral well-being is more impacted if the child has the evening chronotype because in these kids, there is a mismatch between the timing of their clock and the demands that kids face for learning and for fun.
“I sometimes see poor school performance or academic difficulties with possible or probable ADHD,” says Dr. Mohsin Maqbool, pediatric sleep specialist at Texas Child Neurology in Plano. “When I ask about sleep, a significant proportion of those kids are in a spiral of acute or cumulative sleep deprivation.” Which is oftentimes the result of being naturally nocturnal.
So, we ask: Is it possible to reset an internal clock?
It’s not necessarily unalterably set for life. The circadian clock can be manipulated with light.
Experts recommend removing electronics at least two hours before bedtime. The blue light interferes with the ability to fall asleep quickly because it suppresses the secretion of melatonin.
And darken the room as much as possible for bedtime. Even a small distraction such as shadows on a wall sometimes prevent children from falling asleep quickly.
Dr. Roane advocates using sunlight — or artificial light that mimics sunlight — to encourage wakefulness. “Open the curtains when you wake the kids,” she says. “Turn on the overhead light.”
Schedules are also important. “Problems arise for adults, adolescents and children if that internal clock changes a lot, Roane explains. “The other clocks in your body can't keep up because they take about 2–3 days to sync to your master clock. So if you are constantly changing your master clock, those cells are never going to be able to regulate themselves because they are constantly being told something new.” In other words, don’t let parental exhaustion allow the kids to win sleeptime skirmishes some nights and get to bed at 10pm then put them down by 7:30pm other nights.
If your child is struggling to stay awake during the day or is struggling academically because of sleepiness, seek out a pediatric sleep expert who may be able to help you map out your child’s most effective, most alert times for homework, concentrating and learning, given the underlying physiology of their nighttime tendencies.
The Fulbrights know they need some professional assistance before Betsy begins kindergarten in the fall. Until then, they’ll keep the schedule the same: an early bedtime, knowing she’ll be up late. “Thank goodness for the forgiving start time in the morning — for now,” Megan says.
When your little one’s late-night charades are affecting them academically, emotionally or behaviorally, reach out to one of these pediatric sleep centers to help her (and you) get some sleep.
Baylor Sleep Center
Children’s Health Specialty Centers
Pediatric Sleep Institute
Sleep Medicine Consultants
Cook Children’s Sleep Center
Fort Worth, 682/885-6299
Pediatric Pulmonary & Sleep Specialists
Dallas and Plano, 972/566-6996
Family Sleep Diagnostics Clinics
Fort Worth Medical Center, Fort Worth
Medical City of Arlington, Arlington
Mid Cities Hurst Euless Bedford, Hurst
Sleep Center at Las Colinas Medical Center, Las Colinas
Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Flower Mound, Flower Mound
North Texas Lung and Sleep Clinic
Fort Worth and Southlake, 817/731-0230
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