Doctors offer solutions to teen sleep deprivation

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Brighter classroom lighting. Later start times for reading, math and science. No first-period testing. Nap rooms. Classes on “sleep health.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has resisted pressure from the American Academy of Pediatrics to roll back Chicago Public School starting times so middle- and high-school students can get more sleep. But, there are plenty of things CPS can do short of that.

On Thursday, medical experts outlined some of those options for the City Council’s Health Committee at a hearing called to confront the issue of sleep deprivation among teenagers.

“Changing the class schedule so math, science and reading are later in the afternoon. Putting lights in classrooms in the morning so it is very, very bright. Perhaps even creating nap rooms for those children who are exquisitely tired at lunch-time or during their study hall,” said Dr. Stephen Sheldon, the Northwestern University professor of pediatrics and neurology who serves as director of the Sleep Medicine Center at Lurie Children’s Hospital.

“Instead of going to a classroom, they can take a 15-minute nap and they’ll have two hours of alertness. A brief nap is very refreshing…. If they are not sleepy, they’ll do much better. They won’t fall asleep filling out their college applications.”

Sheldon said sleep deficits impact the “health, mood, behavior and performance” of everyone. But, it’s “most pronounced” among teenagers because of the “endocrine upheaval” in their bodies at a time when they are also under tremendous social and academic pressure.

“It behooves all of us everywhere to do something about it,” he said.

Dr. Phyllis Zee, a professor of neurology serving as director of Northwestern’s sleep disorders program, suggested “sleep health” classes, starting in middle-school, and a parallel sleep education track for their parents.

“If you’re an evening type, you may be able to gradually get your sleep schedule to a slightly earlier time. If you’re falling asleep at 2 a.m., you can’t really get up at 6 a.m. So why not, slowly over the course of the week or so, go to bed half an hour earlier?” she said.

“Dim those lights. Stop all of that new light and stimulation at least an hour or two before you go to bed. Stop texting. It is hard to do. [But], decrease the amount of light you’re getting from some of these gadgets.”

She added, “Especially in vulnerable students, where they’re kind of on the edge, having testing later in the day — especially for math and reading — will be very important.”

Ideally, Zee said she would like to see all Chicago Public Schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Realistically, she knows that would be difficult to achieve, especially now that Emanuel and Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett have ruled it out.

But, Zee warned aldermen of the consequences of doing nothing.

“It will have a long-term impact on the health of our children: obesity, heart disease and depresssion. And in the short-term, it will have an effect on safety, such as car accidents, and also academic performance,” she said.

Northwest Side Ald. Marge Laurino (39th), whose resolution triggered Thursday’s hearing, came away from the medical testimony determined to pressure CPS to implement the “very do-able” ideas.

“When you try to change the early start, you’re talking about transportation, the bus companies. There are so many things involved. However, there are some other things we could clearly look at,” Laurino said.

Health Committee Chairman George Cardenas (12th), the father of a sleep-deprived teenager, couldn’t agree more.

“Lighting. Later start-times for reading, math and science. No more early testing. Why not? Let’s try that out,” Cardenas said.

“We should push them to implement some of these policies. We’re spending all of this money on new methods and curriculum, but there are things we can do to boost performance and help students adjust to the changes going on in their bodies.”

To help sleep-deprived high school students get more shut-eye, the American Academy of Pediatrics wants to turn back starting times for middle- and high-school students by 30 minutes.

Emanuel is the son of a pediatrician. He’s also the father of three teenagers who knows only too well how much they love to sleep late.

But the mayor told reporters in late August that he’s not about to use “preliminary research” that’s “not conclusive” as grounds to mess with the starting time at CPS.

Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett agreed with the decision not to offer a knee-jerk reaction to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ decision to declare teen insomnia a public health issue.

“There’s a lot of research and it’s all pretty contradictory about children needing to start their high school day at a later start time. And I don’t think the research is conclusive on that,” Byrd-Bennett said then.

“Right now, we want to stay very focused on what we’re doing and not make any kind of significant changes because those changes in start time have a ripple effect. What I believe will get us to the goal is to remain relentlessly focused. Although the research is there, we’re not planning any changes right now.”

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