Takeaways From the Second Annual Student Sleep Health Week

Raman Malhotra, MD, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, discussed the initiative, which emphasizes the importance of healthy sleep for students.

With the onset of the new school year, students, teachers, and parents are adjusting to “normalcy” following the introduction of a virtual learning environment associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. To emphasize the importance of maintaining healthy sleep habits, especially in light of the shift to more in-person learning, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) has organized the second annual Student Sleep Health Week, held from September 12-18, 2021. Virtual events will be hosted throughout the week, inviting students to get involved by interacting with the hashtag #StudentSleepWeek on social media platforms. 

Although the AASM recommends 9 to 12 hours of sleep for children aged 6 to 12 years and 8 to 10 hours for children aged 13 to 18 years, a recent study estimated that COVID-19 has led to 49% of children not getting enough sleep on a regular basis. Additionally, investigators found that during the pandemic, 54% of children also experienced sleep disturbances.2 

NeurologyLive sat down with the Raman Malhotra, MD, president, AASM, and associate professor of neurology, Washington University in St. Louis, to discuss the key takeaways from Student Sleep Health Week and dive deeper into the effects of the ongoing pandemic. Malhotra called specific attention to the negative implications associated with lack of sleep, which can affect overall health, as well as performance in school and extracurricular activities. 

NeurologyLive: Can you provide a general overview of Student Sleep Health Week? What does it entail?

Raman Malhotra, MD: [As] the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, we organize Student Sleep Health Week to educate students, parents, teachers, and other school officials [on the fact] that sleep can positively impact both physical [and] mental health and really their school performance. We feel that the beginning of September, when people are getting back to school, is a really important time to show that sleep is essential for health, specifically [for] students.

What is the importance of sleep for school-aged children specifically?

Sleep deprivation or not getting good, healthy sleep is a problem that we all suffer from at any age, but really, students and our children seem to be the population that's suffering most from not getting good, healthy sleep. We can make the argument that they’re really the part of the population that needs the most sleep because of what they do day to day, which is learning—and their brain is still developing.

Studies from the CDC show that 78% of high school students are not getting enough sleep. If we look at even younger children, up to a third of them are not getting enough sleep. How this impacts them—obviously, they're learning at school trying to pay attention, cognitive processes can be slowed, but even things like mood, motivation, ability to emotionally handle things, and things like sports and playing instruments and how well they perform can all be affected by not getting enough sleep.

How has sleep been affected for school-aged children following the COVID-19 pandemic?

It was definitely an interesting phenomenon to experience as both kids’ and parents’ schedules changed with COVID. Moving to the virtual world, one thing that we did notice is that the consistent routine that in-person learning provided—needing to be at school at a certain time, getting home, and being on schedule was lost. A lot of the learning may have been done asynchronously, meaning they can learn whenever they want, they can wake up when they want, [which] in some respects, sounded appealing, because they would be able to get enough sleep. But in reality, it really altered children's schedules. So, children and adults both need a set pattern—a set bedtime and wake time, and what we noticed during the pandemic is that consistency was lost.

What can neurologists/physicians/clinicians do to help increase sleep awareness? What are the key takeaways?

Our key takeaway is that we need to prioritize sleep in our children in order for them to succeed in school, and for them to be healthy. What we've noticed as we ask parents and children about their reasonings for not going to sleep at night is [that it is affected by] things like homework, early school start times, other activities, and other fun activities that we definitely want our children to experience. We want to make sure that the parents, students, and neurologists know that sleep is an important priority, just like nutrition and exercise, and if we want our kids to be healthy and succeed, they do need to prioritize that they get enough sleep at nighttime.

Is there anything else you would like to mention?

We talked about getting enough sleep, and I just want to make sure [we note that] obviously children need more sleep than adults. With adults, we typically recommend at least 7 hours, but remember that middle and high school aged kids may look like they're becoming adults, but they do require more sleep. We think they need 8 to 10 hours of sleep, and many times, children will mimic their parents’ sleep schedules when they're in high school, and that's not enough for them. Make sure that you let them know that they need those 8 to 10 hours, and [they] may need more sleep than their parents. 

Transcript edited for clarity.

REFERENCES
1. American Academy of Sleep Medicine organizes second annual Student Sleep Health Week. News release. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. September 7, 2021. Accessed September 10, 2021. https://aasm.org/american-academy-of-sleep-medicine-organizes-second-annual-student-sleep-health-week/
2. Sharma M, Aggarwal S, Madaan P, Saini L, Bhutani M. Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on sleep in children and adolescents: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sleep Med. Published online June 11, 2021. doi:10.1016/j.sleep.2021.06.002