Twenty-five to 40 percent of children have sleep problems, according to Dr. Shelby Harris, a board-certified specialist in Behavioral Sleep Medicine who talked with parents about sleep issues May 7 at Fox Meadow Elementary School.
Harris is in private practice in White Plains and has a doctorate from Yeshiva University. She specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a short-term therapy technique that helps change behavior by teaching people to change their thought patterns.
CBT teaches patients to understand the basis behind their thoughts and feelings. In that vein, Harris told the audience a story to illustrate a helpful way to stop nightmares. She said one of her patients continually had a nightmare in which he was being chased by a knife-wielding murderer. To keep his mind from revisiting the dream, she advised him to change one part of the nightmare into something sweet. From then on, the knife-chaser was chasing the patient through Hershey Park, and when the dreaming patient turned around, the murderer was made of chocolate.
“We naturally use this technique as children, but we stop because we begin to find it stupid,” Harris said, jokingly.
Throughout the seminar, sponsored by Scarsdale Parent-Teacher Council’s CHILD Committee, Harris debunked common misconceptions about sleep. The big one: that everyone needs eight hours of sleep a night. As we grow older, we need less sleep. A child 6 to 13 years old needs between 9 and 11 hours of sleep per night, while a teenager needs 9.25 hours on average. Adults need 7 to 9 hours. And if you’re an adult who naturally wakes up after only six hours of sleep? According to Harris, “I see a lot of adults who say they can’t get more than six hours of sleep… If you get six hours and you wake up fresh, then that’s fine.”
A piece of advice many people may already know: Don’t use a screen before bed. According to Harris, screens are detrimental to sleep because they emit blue light. The human body needs darkness to produce melatonin, but the blue light from a screen is brighter than natural light, making it difficult for the human mind to shift into sleep mode. Any activity that doesn’t involve looking at a screen is fine to help wind down, Harris said. She personally recommends either a book or a podcast. But, for anyone who wants to watch “Friends” or other programs to fall asleep, Harris recommended buying glasses with blue light blocking lenses.
During the seminar, Harris also emphasized the importance of a nighttime routine for both children and adults.
“Our schedules are so busy… our minds need at least an hour to wind down and get ready for sleep,” she said, and those who get home from work and immediately fall asleep will not get as deep a sleep.
“Be a model for your children,” she said, “put a charging station outside your room… and if you use your phone as an alarm, get an alarm clock.”
Detecting if your child has a sleep disorder isn’t as easy as looking for bags under their eyes, and solving a disorder isn’t as simple as taking their screen away.
“Sleepy children don’t often look sleepy,” Harris said.
Indeed, a poor sleep schedule can sometimes lead to hyperactivity in children. A sign your child needs more sleep is if he or she sleeps two or more hours during weekends or vacations than they do on weekdays.
“They’re trying to make up that sleep debt by sleeping on weekends,” Harris said, “but our biological clock doesn’t know when it’s a weekend, so it’s not natural.”
According to Harris, if your child feels more comfortable staying up late, then enforcing an early bedtime might not be what’s best for the child.
“[If] you have night owls who feel comfortable going to sleep at 11 p.m. or 12 a.m., then they’re [taking a test] at 8 a.m. when they need nine hours or more of sleep every night.”
For night owls, waking up to get ready for school at 6:30 a.m. isn’t necessarily easy, Harris said.
The solution? Create a sleep schedule. Make sure your child takes time to wind down before going to sleep, so their sleep quality is the best possible. Set an example for your kid by putting your phone down and going to bed at a reasonable hour. “People … just need to manage their sleep routines.”