Emily Oster

8 min Read Emily Oster

Emily Oster

Your Child Is Not Getting Enough Sleep

That's probably obvious. What to do about it is less so.

Emily Oster

8 min Read

Sleep, as a phenomenon, is extremely interesting.

All animals sleep, or have a form of sleep-like resting state. Sometimes they have to get creative. Dolphins, for example, rest half their brain at a time, with the other half awake so they can stay swimming. I have always felt, though, that sleep seems tremendously maladaptive. Think about it: a long period every day in which you need to be lying around, unconscious, ready to be eaten by a large predator or attacked by an enemy. Thinking about it from an evolutionary perspective, it seems like the evolutionary pressure would be toward sleeping less — sleep less, live longer.

The combination of the universality of sleep and the fact that it seems fundamentally maladaptive suggests that it must be really, really important for some other reason. We do not entirely understand what that is; most theories involve memory consolidation or similar ideas. Sleep is rest for your body, too, although resting isn’t sufficient — the process of sleep itself is necessary.

What do the studies on sleep say?

Even if we do not know precisely why, we know that sleep is important for people, including (perhaps especially) children. We know this from data. I have an entire chapter on this topic in The Family Firm. There is a huge amount of evidence to pick from, so I’ll pull out just two results here.

The first is from a small study of children ages 8 to 12 who were followed over three weeks. In one week, they slept normally; in another, they went to bed an hour later; in the third, an hour earlier. The authors found that the shorter sleep manipulation — the hour-later bedtime — resulted in worse performance on cognitive tests and worse behavior. And this is just an hour less sleep for one week!

The second study I really like here is from a boarding school that moved their school start time by 30 minutes as an experiment. They found this change in start time increased sleep — actually, increased it by more than 30 minutes, since students started to go to bed earlier because they noticed how much sleep mattered. The study showed decreased sleepiness, less falling asleep in class, and less need for naps.

There is much more data on this from various angles, including data on adults, impacts on mental health, car accidents, and so on. The bottom line is that too little sleep is bad. Most kids of elementary and middle school age need 9 to 11 hours of sleep a night. That’s a pretty wide range, and there is variation within kids. How do you know if your child is getting enough sleep? Two key markers. First, a well-rested child isn’t tired at school or falling asleep or yawning in class. Second, a well-rested child (or person) will not engage in much “weekend oversleep.” That is to say: if you let a kid sleep until they wake up on their own on the weekend, if they are well rested, they should wake up around when they normally do. If your child is sleeping in four extra hours on the weekend, they are probably not getting enough sleep.

Up until this point, I suspect many people are nodding along. Yes, absolutely, sleep is extremely important. Yup, kids need sleep. So important! Yes, data. Randomization! Totally, 100% convinced.

But how can my kid actually get more sleep?

But here is the harder point to absorb. If you want to live by this sleep data, if you want to have your child get an appropriate amount of sleep, that may mean giving up something else. Specifically: electronics, activities, or both.

Let’s start with electronics time. There are good studies that show that exposure to screens — phones, iPads, computers, TV — is disruptive close to the time of sleep. Your brain gets the message that it’s light out and doesn’t make the right amount of melatonin. It’s hard to fall asleep. Studies (again, randomized) have shown that when kids have screen exposure close to bedtime, their sleep quality is worse. If you are looking to improve sleep quality, limiting electronics in the couple of hours before bedtime is a good idea. (By the way, this is also true for adults.)

Implementing this in your house may be challenging, because it may require new limit setting. I certainly wouldn’t read this newsletter and then announce with no warning to your children that the pre-bedtime TV watching is canceled. However, if electronics play a major role right before bed, it’s worth considering whether that time might be spent differently.

The second point here is more challenging for families to absorb and act on. If you want to prioritize sleep, it may come at the expense of something else you also think is important. This is really just a numbers argument. Let’s say your fourth grader needs to get up at 6:30 for school, and you realize they need 10 hours of sleep, right in the middle of the recommended amount for that age range. This child needs to go to sleep at 8:30 p.m. Most basically, this means that they cannot do an activity that goes until, say, 9 p.m. Moreover, they probably cannot do an activity that goes until 7:30 either. Between getting home, eating, getting ready for bed, and possibly doing some homework, this is likely to rule out a reliable 8:30 bedtime.

For older kids, activities pile up: sports, math club, homework, piano lessons. As kids’ out-of-school activities get more serious, they get more time-consuming. And they start to get in the way of sleep. As a parent of a child in late elementary or middle school, you may find yourself stuck. There may simply be no way to both get the appropriate amount of sleep and also do all the activities that your child wants to do (or you want them to do).

How can this be resolved?

The first thing may be to recognize that this is a “no secret option C” moment. There is no way to do gymnastics until 9 p.m. and also be asleep at 8:30. Once you recognize that, it requires a real conversation — with yourself, your partner if you have one, and probably your child — about what is going to win out. This is a textbook place where deliberate decision-making should rule. Think about the value of the activity, the value of sleep, whether there are changes you could make to make the tradeoff less sharp (moving things around so they can sleep later, for example). It’s also worth considering the value of experimentation in these spaces. Could you take a break from the activity for a week or two, experiment with more sleep, and see what happens?

These conversations are not always hard. You may find that some activity isn’t actually serving anyone — your child doesn’t love it and neither do you, and somehow you’re engaged in it for historical reasons. Giving it up in favor of sleep may be a no-brainer.

My point here is not that your child should quit gymnastics or soccer or harp lessons. I love the harp! But what is true is that because sleep feels passive, it can be very easy to think of it as almost a luxury, perhaps the obvious place to cut if you’re pressed for time. As an adult, that’s often my instinct. That’s not correct. Sleep is crucial for our physical and mental health and functioning. It should be a high priority in thinking about how our children’s time is used.

A final note: When I talk to parents about this, they’ll often tell me they’re bought in but that their kids can’t absorb it, and the idea of dialing down an activity generates conflict. I get that. However, sleep is something that very quickly affects your experience of being in the world. In this way, it’s actually relatively easy to demonstrate the value to your child and to get them bought into investing in it. It’s not like vegetables, where your pitch is they should eat them because down the line they might have less heart disease. Here, you can say: let’s try more sleep for four days and evaluate how you feel. And the benefit there is if you can get your kids to value sleep now, they might value it later, when you’re not there to help them control it.

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Looking for Memorial Day Weekend plans? Might be the perfect time to give potty training a shot. Potty training is notoriously difficult, and we unfortunately don’t have a lot of evidence-based guidance on what works best. So I asked the ParentData community to fill out a survey and share their knowledge — about 6,000 people responded.

👉Comment “Link” for a DM to an article that summarizes all of the best potty training advice we collected. 

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#emilyoster #parentdata #pottytraining #pottytrainingtips #toddlertips

Looking for Memorial Day Weekend plans? Might be the perfect time to give potty training a shot. Potty training is notoriously difficult, and we unfortunately don’t have a lot of evidence-based guidance on what works best. So I asked the ParentData community to fill out a survey and share their knowledge — about 6,000 people responded.

👉Comment “Link” for a DM to an article that summarizes all of the best potty training advice we collected.

Remember, you are not alone in the potty training struggle! It can be incredibly challenging, so please give yourself some grace.

#emilyoster #parentdata #pottytraining #pottytrainingtips #toddlertips
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We’re hiring an Associate Editor at ParentData! More details at my link in bio. Please share with the great writers and data-loving people in your network. 📊💻 ...

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#emilyoster #funnytweets #relatabletweets #parentingjokes #kidssaythedarndestthings

Do you brand things a certain way to get your kid to accept it? Like calling carrots “rabbit popsicles”? Or telling them to put on their “super speed socks” in the morning? Share your rebrands in the comments below! You never know who you might be helping out 👇

#emilyoster #funnytweets #relatabletweets #parentingjokes #kidssaythedarndestthings
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Listen and subscribe to ParentData with Emily Oster in your favorite podcast app 🎧

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Have you ever panic-googled a parenting question when everyone else is asleep? If so, you’re not alone.

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Listen and subscribe to ParentData with Emily Oster in your favorite podcast app 🎧

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☀️ If you want to add a little sunscreen on their hands and feet? Go for it! But be mindful as baby skin tends to more prone to irritation.

Comment “Link” for a DM to an article on the data around sun and heat exposure for babies.

#sunsafety #babysunscreen #babyhealth #parentdata #emilyoster
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OUT NOW: My new book “The Unexpected: Navigating Pregnancy During and After Complications” is available on April 30th. All of my other books came out of my own experiences. I wrote them to answer questions I had, as a pregnant woman and then as a new parent. “The Unexpected” is a book not to answer my own questions but to answer yours. Specifically, to answer the thousands of questions I’ve gotten over the past decade from people whose pregnancies were more complicated than they had expected. This is for you. 💛 Order now at my link in bio!

OUT NOW: My new book “The Unexpected: Navigating Pregnancy During and After Complications” is available on April 30th. All of my other books came out of my own experiences. I wrote them to answer questions I had, as a pregnant woman and then as a new parent. “The Unexpected” is a book not to answer my own questions but to answer yours. Specifically, to answer the thousands of questions I’ve gotten over the past decade from people whose pregnancies were more complicated than they had expected. This is for you. 💛 Order now at my link in bio! ...

OUT NOW: My new book “The Unexpected: Navigating Pregnancy During and After Complications” is available on April 30th. All of my other books came out of my own experiences. I wrote them to answer questions I had, as a pregnant woman and then as a new parent. “The Unexpected” is a book not to answer my own questions but to answer yours. Specifically, to answer the thousands of questions I’ve gotten over the past decade from people whose pregnancies were more complicated than they had expected. This is for you. 💛 Order now at my link in bio!

OUT NOW: My new book “The Unexpected: Navigating Pregnancy During and After Complications” is available on April 30th. All of my other books came out of my own experiences. I wrote them to answer questions I had, as a pregnant woman and then as a new parent. “The Unexpected” is a book not to answer my own questions but to answer yours. Specifically, to answer the thousands of questions I’ve gotten over the past decade from people whose pregnancies were more complicated than they had expected. This is for you. 💛 Order now at my link in bio! ...

OUT NOW: My new book “The Unexpected: Navigating Pregnancy During and After Complications” is available on April 30th. All of my other books came out of my own experiences. I wrote them to answer questions I had, as a pregnant woman and then as a new parent. “The Unexpected” is a book not to answer my own questions but to answer yours. Specifically, to answer the thousands of questions I’ve gotten over the past decade from people whose pregnancies were more complicated than they had expected. This is for you. 💛 Order now at my link in bio!

OUT NOW: My new book “The Unexpected: Navigating Pregnancy During and After Complications” is available on April 30th. All of my other books came out of my own experiences. I wrote them to answer questions I had, as a pregnant woman and then as a new parent. “The Unexpected” is a book not to answer my own questions but to answer yours. Specifically, to answer the thousands of questions I’ve gotten over the past decade from people whose pregnancies were more complicated than they had expected. This is for you. 💛 Order now at my link in bio! ...

Is side sleeping important during pregnancy? Comment “Link” for a DM to an article on whether sleep position affects pregnancy outcomes.

Being pregnant makes you tired, and as time goes by, it gets increasingly hard to get comfortable. You were probably instructed to sleep on your side and not your back, but it turns out that advice is not based on very good data.

We now have much better data on this, and the bulk of the evidence seems to reject the link between sleep position and stillbirth or other negative outcomes. So go ahead and get some sleep however you are most comfortable. 💤

Sources:
📖 #ExpectingBetter pp. 160-163
📈 Robert M. Silver et al., “Prospective Evaluation of Maternal Sleep Position Through 30 Weeks of Gestation and Adverse Pregnancy Outcomes,” Obstetrics and Gynecology 134, no. 4 (2019): 667–76. 

#emilyoster #pregnancy #pregnancytips #sleepingposition #pregnantlife

Is side sleeping important during pregnancy? Comment “Link” for a DM to an article on whether sleep position affects pregnancy outcomes.

Being pregnant makes you tired, and as time goes by, it gets increasingly hard to get comfortable. You were probably instructed to sleep on your side and not your back, but it turns out that advice is not based on very good data.

We now have much better data on this, and the bulk of the evidence seems to reject the link between sleep position and stillbirth or other negative outcomes. So go ahead and get some sleep however you are most comfortable. 💤

Sources:
📖 #ExpectingBetter pp. 160-163
📈 Robert M. Silver et al., “Prospective Evaluation of Maternal Sleep Position Through 30 Weeks of Gestation and Adverse Pregnancy Outcomes,” Obstetrics and Gynecology 134, no. 4 (2019): 667–76.

#emilyoster #pregnancy #pregnancytips #sleepingposition #pregnantlife
...

My new book, “The Unexpected: Navigating Pregnancy During and After Complications” is available for preorder at the link in my bio!

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The book lays out the data on recurrence and delves into treatment options shown to lower risk for these conditions in subsequent pregnancies. It also guides you through how to have productive conversations and make shared decisions with your doctor. I hope none of you need this book, but if you do, it’ll be here for you 💛

#pregnancy #pregnancycomplications #pregnancyjourney #preeclampsiaawareness #postpartumjourney #emilyoster

My new book, “The Unexpected: Navigating Pregnancy During and After Complications” is available for preorder at the link in my bio!

I co-wrote #TheUnexpected with my friend and maternal fetal medicine specialist, Dr. Nathan Fox. The unfortunate reality is that about half of pregnancies include complications such as preeclampsia, miscarriage, preterm birth, and postpartum depression. Because these are things not talked about enough, it can not only be an isolating experience, but it can also make treatment harder to access.

The book lays out the data on recurrence and delves into treatment options shown to lower risk for these conditions in subsequent pregnancies. It also guides you through how to have productive conversations and make shared decisions with your doctor. I hope none of you need this book, but if you do, it’ll be here for you 💛

#pregnancy #pregnancycomplications #pregnancyjourney #preeclampsiaawareness #postpartumjourney #emilyoster
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We are better writers than influencers, I promise. Thanks to our kids for filming our unboxing videos. People make this look way too easy. 

Only two weeks until our book “The Unexpected” is here! Preorder at the link in my bio. 💙

We are better writers than influencers, I promise. Thanks to our kids for filming our unboxing videos. People make this look way too easy.

Only two weeks until our book “The Unexpected” is here! Preorder at the link in my bio. 💙
...

Exciting news! We have new, high-quality data that says it’s safe to take Tylenol during pregnancy and there is no link between Tylenol exposure and neurodevelopmental issues in kids. Comment “Link” for a DM to an article exploring this groundbreaking study.

While doctors have long said Tylenol was safe, confusing studies, panic headlines, and even a lawsuit have continually stoked fears in parents. As a result, many pregnant women have chosen not to take it, even if it would help them.

This is why good data is so important! When we can trust the data, we can trust our choices. And this study shows there is no blame to be placed on pregnant women here. So if you have a migraine or fever, please take your Tylenol.

#tylenol #pregnancy #pregnancyhealth #pregnancytips #parentdata #emilyoster

Exciting news! We have new, high-quality data that says it’s safe to take Tylenol during pregnancy and there is no link between Tylenol exposure and neurodevelopmental issues in kids. Comment “Link” for a DM to an article exploring this groundbreaking study.

While doctors have long said Tylenol was safe, confusing studies, panic headlines, and even a lawsuit have continually stoked fears in parents. As a result, many pregnant women have chosen not to take it, even if it would help them.

This is why good data is so important! When we can trust the data, we can trust our choices. And this study shows there is no blame to be placed on pregnant women here. So if you have a migraine or fever, please take your Tylenol.

#tylenol #pregnancy #pregnancyhealth #pregnancytips #parentdata #emilyoster
...