Sleep deprivation's toll.

Long ago when Mahatma Ghandi said, “Each night when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn,” he was definitely on to something. As Time’s Alice Park explains, “It [sleep] is nature’s panacea, more powerful than any drug in its ability to restore and rejuvenate the human brain and body.” Oh, yes!

For instance, as she reports, when asleep…

The wear and tear on our bones is repaired;
Muscle tears and injuries are mended;
Growth factors restore skin and maintain its elasticity;
Brain cells push out the day’s accumulated “debris;”
The pancreas better breaks down consumed sugar.
Problem is, most of us aren’t getting enough shut eye, leaving us not just cranky and out of sorts but with a whole host of other potential problems, too. Indeed, says Brown University’s Mary Carskadon, “Sleep deprivation comes with consequences that are scary, really scary.” And the list, which applies even more so to the young, includes:

Drowsiness and lack of attention
Daydreaming and/or falling asleep during class
Impaired cognitive function
Inability to solve problems, cope with stress, and retain information
A compromised immune system
Substance abuse (alcohol/drugs)
Unsafe driving habits/car accidents
Later blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases

So just how much is enough? Well, according to the National Sleep Foundation’s recently updated recommendations:

Newborns: 14 to 17 hours
Infants: 12 to 15 hours (ages 4 to 11 months)
Toddlers: 11 to 14 hours (ages 1 to 2)
Pre-Schoolers: 10 to 13 hours (ages 3 to 5)
School Age: 9 to 11 hours (ages 6 to 13)
Teens: 8 to 10 hours (ages 14 to 17)
Young Adults: 7 to 9 hours (ages 18 to 25)
Adults: 7 to 9 hours (ages 16 to 64)
Older Adults: 7 to 8 hours (65+)

Unfortunately, it’s just not happening, In fact, Americans’ average sleep time has dropped, on average, from 8.5 hours a night to just 6.9 hours in the past fifty years. And it’s not just us here who are sleep deprived. A recent study of some 700,000 school-aged kids in 20 countries revealed that they slept, on average, 75 fewer minutes a night in 2008 than they did back in 1905. One big reason says Harvard’s Dr. Charles. A. Czeisler: “Tech has disconnected us from the natural 24-hour day.”

So there you have it, so we parents need to take steps to ensure that our kids (and ourselves) are rested and ready to go, not yawning and out of sorts—or worse. Best bet: Be a role model and establish some house rules, as well, making sure to:

Get your kids exercising regularly.
Insist that, one hour before lights out, all electronics and TVs are off. (Reportedly, 70% of kids have a TV in their bedrooms.) These devices emit “blue light” which affects the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin more than any other kind of light. Be advised: This applies to some energy-efficient lamps, too.
Get homework started as soon after school as possible.
See that computer-required homework is done early on, too.
Watch caffeine intake and none past noon. Teens are now downing, on average, about 100 mg of it a day, thanks to such drinks as Red Bull (80 mg per 8.4 fl. oz. can) and Jolt (280 mg per 23.5 fl. oz. can).
Follow the guidelines and establish a regular bedtime (10 or 10:30 for older teens), coupled with a ritual to two, such as listening to instrumental music, quietly talking, reading, etc., and, of course, a goodnight kiss.

One thing we parents have no control over, however, is the start time for schools. As it is, younger children, who often wake up early, don’t typically start school until 9 a.m.. Yet, older teens, whose biological clocks have them “programmed” to stay up until 10 or 11 at night and rise around 8 a.m., normally find themselves in first period by 7:30, even 7 a.m.—thus very sleep deprived.

And that matters a lot.

For instance, a recent University of Minnesota study of some 9,000 high schoolers found that when the start times were pushed back to 8 a.m. or later, it resulted in improved health, academic performance and attendance, together with decreased tardiness rates. That finding, meanwhile, has been replicated so often that, finally, folks are now paying attention.

That includes the Academy of Pediatrics. About two years ago, the organization formally recommended that schools delay their start times; fortunately several actually are nowadays. For instance, high schools and most middle schools in the Seattle Public Schools district will now start at 8:45 a.m. this fall instead of 7:50 a.m. Then there’s the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. Its high schools now don’t get started until around 8 a.m.

Such districts are forging ahead despite after-school activities, athletics and jobs complications, disrupted family schedules and costly transportation issues, too. And no wonder, since the well-being of our kids is at stake—their grades, too.

Bottom line: As Mark Rosenkind, a National Transportation Safety Board member and psychologist puts it: “If we want to thrive, we have to start valuing sleep.”