What's Wrong With This Sleep Guide That's Stirring Controversy?

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A sleep guide is stirring a hot debate online among parents and teachers. (Photo: Wilson Elementary School)

Lurking between all those adorable photos on Facebook of kids heading back to school is one photo that’s instead stirring a lot of controversy: A sleep guide that has some parents crying foul.

The chart, posted last week by Wilson Elementary School in Wisconsin, seems innocent enough: It says what time kids of different ages should go to bed at night and wake up in the morning. But it’s been hotly debated online, with well over 385,000 shares and more than 8,400 comments. Many of the parents who have shared and commented on the post say it’s totally unrealistic to expect a 12-year-old who has to be up at 6 a.m. to go to bed by 8:15 p.m., or that a 5-year-old who has to get up at 7 a.m. can’t possibly be expected to have a bedtime of 7:30 p.m.

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Some parents have commented that the chart is impractical for working moms and dads. “Tell that to a mother who doesn’t get home until 6:15 most nights and still has to prepare dinner, check homework, and get baths,” writes Crystal Roberts.

Others pointed out that this schedule leaves little time for after-school activities such as sports or band and homework, let alone quality family time. Mom-of-5 Jacklyn Brooks says that her children aren’t done with soccer and cheerleading practice until between 7 and 8 p.m. “Then we have to go home, shower, get clothes laid out and everything ready for school the next day,” she writes. “All five of my kids go to sleep at 9, and I have no problem waking up the four kids that go to school in the morning at 7. This chart is unrealistic.”

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But not everyone is up in arms against the chart. Some parents say the sleep chart validates the schedule they’ve already been following at home. “This is pretty much what I have done so far with my son,” comments LeAnn Block-Rauter. “Sleep is extremely important. He does do sports after school and gets homework done. Have to have priorities.”

Even teachers are weighing in, noting that some parents don’t realize how sleep deprived their children are during the day, which affects their performance at school. “As a retired teacher, I would like to say a whole [lot] of parents have no idea how their kids are in school,” writes Kathleen Stutterheim. “It was pretty darn discouraging to be conducting a class with students who were too tired to hold their heads up.”

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So how feasible are these bedtimes? And when should kids hit the hay?

Nanci Yuan, MD, medical director of the Sleep Center at Stanford Children’s Health, says that the chart isn’t very realistic — but not necessarily because of the amount of suggested sleep. Yuan says that 5- to 12-year-old kids need 10 to 12 hours of sleep on average, but she also points out that there are individual variations so some children can function well on less than that.

The problem with the chart is the wake and sleep times, which illustrates how incompatible early school start times can be with kids’ natural sleep habits. “Kids are being forced to sleep at times dictated by societal pressures aimed at adults and still based on agrarian [farming] work hours,” she says. “Multiple studies in the U.S. have shown that later school times, which physiologically follow kids’ circadian rhythm and biological clock, help kids do better in school.”

A 2015 report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, which surveyed 40,000 middle, high, and combined public schools in the U.S., found that only one in five schools begin classes at 8:30 a.m., the recommended start time by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The average start time is 8:03 a.m. A lack of sleep from getting up early not only affects kids’ moods and ability to concentrate in school, but it also impacts their health by increasing the risk of obesity and diabetes.

Unfortunately, unless schools are willing to adjust their start times, there isn’t much parents can do. However, Yuan points out that parents can aim to make getting a good night’s sleep a priority for their children. She says that consistency is key: “The most important concept is that of a regular bedtime schedule with a set wake-up and sleep times, which do not vary by more than an hour, even on weekends,” she says. “Also the sleep environment matters — in other words, no electronic light exposure at least an hour before bedtime. The hour before bedtime should be used to get the body and mind ready for sleep.”

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