When I was a preteen and teen, I happily ate breakfast. I couldn’t wait to pour out a bowl of Lucky Charms or Captain Crunch. But in college, I almost always skipped the first meal of the day. Lack of time was the usual reason.
At the same time, Seth resists breakfast almost every morning. I think the big reason is that he sees it as the beginning of the “bad part of the day.” That is, him going to preschool or me headed off for work. Or both. By delaying the meal, he gets to keep me around longer, which by the way, tends to work.
So I read with interest Shooting Down the Breakfast Club in Slate. Author Amanda Schaffer takes a look at claims that children do better academically – and have lower rates of obesity – if they eat a solid breakfast. But Schaffer wonders if researchers are putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Maybe these kids who skip breakfast just need more sleep and as such are slow to get going in the morning.
Schaffer believes that breakfast may have little to do with learning issues. It’s actually the lack of sleep that is to blame:
The case for circadian rhythms and sleep as key to performance has strong scientific grounding. Sleep researchers have shown that peoples’ preferences for morning or evening activity – for being an early bird or a night owl – are partly genetic and can be apparent even early in life. …
These tendencies can have a big impact on cognitive performance. People test significantly better at the time of day they identify as their best than they do at the time they say is their worst, especially in mental tasks involving memory. This is intriguing, since memory-related tests are also the ones that breakfast-eaters seem to excel at. Yet apparently no one has done a study on breakfast, cognitive performance, and time-of-day preference (or at least no one whom the reviewers in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association mention in their article). So, we don’t know whether the kids who do worse on early-morning tests are struggling because they haven’t eaten breakfast or because they aren’t morning people.
A few years ago, I would have whole heartedly agreed with Schaffer’s supposition that it’s lack of sleep, stupid. Especially when she talks about kids nodding off in the classroom, which I did with increasing frequency as puberty kicked in and continued right through college. Schaffer writes:
Of course, cognitive performance is also hindered by sheer exhaustion. And there’s growing evidence to suggest that teens in particular are frequently sleep-deprived. Parents often think that children need less sleep as they grow up. The research, on the other hand, shows that adolescents still require a solid nine and a quarter hours of sleep a night – at least as much as their younger counterparts. But given their shifting circadian rhythms, budding social lives, and after-school demands, they average only seven and a half hours of sleep on weeknights, with roughly a quarter getting six and a half hours or less. No wonder some of them sleep till noon on Saturday and Sunday.
And no wonder they doze off in class. Studies have found that brief periods of micro-sleep intrude on the waking brains of people who are sleep-deprived, making them more or less oblivious to what is going on around them, even if their eyes are open.
That sounds like me, though I usually got 9 or 10 hours of sleep every night; I simply could not get enough rest during adolescence. Once I found the next class had settled in around me as I woke up. Everyone laughed when I got up and left in a panic.
But in just the last year or two, I’ve discovered something else that needs to be studied. What if the problem with Circadian rhythms is actually the diet itself?
For example, as I’ve cut back on meat and calorie consumption, not only do I sleep better and deeper at night, I am now an early riser. I’m not talking about 8 a.m. here, but more like 5:30 a.m. Could it be that eating too many calories turns some children into night owls because their bodies have too much energy kicking around to let them sleep? Ironically, that would put the horse back in front of the cart.
Other possible cause of sleep issues may have nothing to do with food. What about sunlight? Seth tends to wake up and go to sleep more in tandem with the sun than my wife and I care for as parents. Now that it’s summer, he gets up in time for preschool without much hassle. (His rising early cuts in on my output for this site, but I happily get to spend more time with him.) That tendency became even more pronounced after we moved him back into his own room, which faces the eastern sky.
Last fall when he was sleeping in our westward-facing window, I could have dressed Seth and delivered him to preschool still asleep. His body seemed to say, “No sun, don’t bother me.”
This leaves me to wonder if at least some of our children’s sleep problems come from the larger homes that Americans now live in. How does a lack of windows, or a north-facing room impact children’s sleeping patterns as opposed to a brightly-lit room facing south? And let’s not forget that modern technology such as computers and television greatly encourage at least older children to stay up far too late.
What also needs to be considered is a lack of physical exercise in our modern world. Most people I know, which is admittedly anecdotal, sleep better if they are physically exhausted each day. Seth certainly sleeps better after a hard day at the beach or playground. It seems all these factors should be considered together rather than as separate items when it comes to sleep and eating issues.
One thing does seem to be clear: that children who sleep too little are more likely to become sick and overweight, Schaffer writes. So no matter how you look at it, there is an imperative that parents make sure their children get enough sleep. I’m not sure I agree with Schaffer, who concludes “the best way to handle the cranky kid who doesn’t want breakfast is to let her sleep,” but she does offer food for sleep, er thought.