Nurture Shock: Chapter 2

{This is the second in a series of posts about the book Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Click here to read more.}

The Lost Hour

After showing us how praising our children for their intelligence can have a negative effect on their self-confidence, Bronson and Merryman turn our attention to the topic of sleep and how one less hour of sleep is affecting our children’s IQ, emotional well-being, and physical health.

I think the media has paid more attention to sleep research than self-esteem/praise research, especially to the link between lack of sleep and medical conditions in adults. It seems like every day I come across an online article extolling the virtues of sleep for combatting everything from diabetes to depression. Because I have sleep apnea, I am acutely aware of the effects of poor sleep, because I don’t get a good night’s sleep – ever.

{Later today, I have an appointment to be fitted with a new mask for the CPAP machine I’ve had but not used for four years. I never liked the first mask – it was too tight and confining and left ugly strap marks on my face – so I never wore it. I am hopeful that getting a better night’s sleep will “cure” all my ailments: sleep apnea, depression, anxiety, being overweight, etc. which will naturally lead to lower stress and (please, God!) the riddance of my tinnitus! It’s a lot to ask of one little piece of plastic, but I’m confident I will see results!}

Bronson and Merryman offer compelling evidence that sleep deprivation is one of the biggest problems facing children today, and not just in the United States, but worldwide. According to the authors, children from elementary school to high school get an hour less sleep a night than they did thirty years ago. The reasons for this vary, including afternoons packed with activities, more homework, “negotiable” bedtimes, and electronics in the bedroom. Families today seem to be “on-the-go” in ways that I don’t remember from my childhood.

Children have homework (worksheets, projects, and reading assignments) starting in kindergarten – I don’t remember “real” homework in kindergarten, do you? – and during baseball season, some of my second grade boys have games that last until 9:30! Did Little League games run that long back in the ’70s? Parents, in an effort to give their children the best possible advantages, sign their children up for sports, art classes, music lessons, scouts, and tutoring – with one activity often running into another. Not to mention religious or language classes, playdates, and after-school clubs. Kids barely have time to breathe, and bedtimes are pushed back later and later to accommodate all of this activity.

According to the authors, the research shows that the later bedtimes come at a price:

  • lower cognitive function, including lower performance on IQ tests
  • moodiness, irritability, and depression
  • an inability to maintain the attention necessary to complete academic tasks
  • lower grades (especially in high school)*
  • a higher incidence of obesity (worldwide)

Using MRIs, scientists now understand exactly what is happening in children’s brains while they are sleeping. The authors cite Dr. Matthew Walker, a researcher at UC Berkeley, who explains that while children sleep, their brains “shift what is learned that day to more efficient storage regions in the brain.” Each stage of sleep plays a particular part in this process. If any part of this process is interrupted or shortened, it can have detrimental effects on a child’s ability to recall information, control impulses, and focus on abstract goals, like completing homework before going outside to play.

The authors write:

Kids’ sleep is qualitatively different than grownups’ sleep because children spend more than 40% of their asleep time  in the slow-wave [deep sleep] stage (which is ten times the proportion that older adults spend). This is why a good night’s sleep is so important for long-term learning of vocabulary words, times tables, historical dates, and all other factual minutiae.

Bronson and Merryman, 2009

It is ironic that at a time when we have ratcheted up the intensity of learning, children are getting less sleep than they require in order to process and deeply embed that learning.

One of the most startling discoveries  (akin to the link between praise and lower performance the authors discussed in chapter one) is the research illuminating the role sleep plays in the rise of obesity in children. Common wisdom says that kids are overweight now compared to thirty years ago because they watch too much television or spend too much time on the computer/playing video games and not enough time playing outside. Once again, we are ill-informed!

A researcher at the University of Texas in Austin surveyed a body of research that has followed 8,000 families since 1968. Upon close examination, she found that obese kids and thin kids watch approximately the same amount of television (no statistical difference) and, what’s more, that kids today watch only 7 minutes more television than they did in the ’70s! Scientists are now concluding that diet and exercise have less to do with obesity than that lost hour of sleep. On average, children who sleep less are fatter than children who sleep more.

So, instead of telling our children to turn off the TV or get off the computer and go play outside, we should start saying turn off the TV/computer and go to sleep!

 ETA: There is an article on CNN linking sleep deprivation to depression in teenagers.

*The authors spend a considerable portion of this chapter discussing the well-researched arguments for a later start time in high school. You might want to read this chapter yourself if you have a teenager who stays up late (like teens’ bodies are wired to do) and gets less than 8 hours of sleep because he/she has to be at school by 7:00 or 7:30.

2 thoughts on “Nurture Shock: Chapter 2

  1. Bill has had great results with CPAP machine. I don’t know if it was classic sleep apnea but he wasn’t going into REM sleep. His doctor didn’t know how he functioned. Bill said he feels 100% better and has lost weight too. Hope it gives you great benefits too!

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