By Jan Hittelman

What is the optimal number of sleep hours for elementary middle and high school children? Does adequate sleep help children’s mental health and learning ability?
Curtis Stringer, Southern Hills Dad

Most experts agree that elementary age children need about 10 – 11 hours of sleep. Most middle and high school youth need about 9½ hours, while some can function well with as little as 8¼ hours of sleep. Unfortunately most studies indicate that both younger children and adolescents are getting less sleep than they require. Elementary students typically average about 9½ hours of sleep and in one study less that 15% of teenagers reported getting even 8½ hours on school nights.

An additional challenge for adolescents is that their biological clock shifts to a later sleep/wake cycle, often making it difficult for them to get to sleep before 11:00pm. Given that the typical high school day can start as early as 7:30am, it can be an impossible task for teens to get enough sleep. As a result there are currently efforts underway in many states to delay the start of the school day until 8:30am or later. This can be a scheduling challenge for school administrators and some parents in terms of busing, after school sports, childcare and carpooling. The research, however, from school districts that have switched to a later start time indicates: improved enrollment, attendance, alertness, and overall mood.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) identifies adolescents (ages 12 to 25 years) as a high risk group for problem sleepiness based on “evidence that the prevalence of problem sleepiness is high and increasing with particularly serious consequences.” (NIH, 1997).
The most disturbing consequence involves injuries and deaths related to drowsiness while driving, which results in at least 100,000 car crashes each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA, 1994). Young drivers age 25 or under are responsible for more than half of these accidents. Research also shows that sleep deprivation impairs: attention/concentration, communication, problem solving, decision-making, healthy eating, mood and motivation.

Locally, a recent study asked Boulder County high school students if they had gotten enough sleep in the last week. Ninety-two percent responded that they did not “get enough sleep to feel rested in the morning seven out of the seven days preceding the survey” (Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 2005).

There are many things that parents can do to improve their child’s sleep habits. These include: encouraging a consistent sleep schedule and bedtime routine, limiting caffeine, using the bed only for sleeping, not having a TV or computer in the bedroom (as studies show that children with TV’s in their room sleep less), and avoiding exercise at night.

For more information on children and sleep, you can visit the following websites: &