That conclusion came from a multi-year study in which researchers looked at data on low-income boys from western Pennsylvania. Their mothers answered questions on a wide variety of questions, including their sleep habits. When the boys were 20, the team asked them directly about their history with alcohol and pot.
As it turned out, less sleep or poor sleep as a child correlated with trying alcohol and pot sooner and using it repeatedly. To be specific, for every hour less a boy slept at age 11, on average, he would smoke pot or drink alcohol 20 percent sooner.
The researchers also examined other possible causes for earlier drug use to make sure sleep was truly significant. But “after considering other possible influences, we were able to determine that sleep problems are preceding the substance use problems,” said lead author Brant Hasler, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “Addressing sleep may now be something we can add into the package of our substance abuse prevention and treatment efforts.”
Keeping your kids away from pot isn’t a minor matter. About one in 11 pot smokers becomes addicted. The evidence is that kids who start using pot before the age of 15 are less likely to graduate from high school. Kids who spoke pot weekly are more than twice as likely to be anxious or depressed. Especially around puberty, some children who are vulnerable to psychosis are pushed over the edge by cannabis. Smoking pot weekly tends to lead to cigarette smoking, and pot smokers do move on to other drugs, though it’s not clear you can blame the pot.
Keeping your teens away from alcohol is also important. The brain is still developing into our mid-20s, and some science suggests that drinking in the high-school and college years can do permanent damage to memory. When scientists gave standard mental ability tests to 12 to 14 year olds who didn’t drink, and followed up four years later, the teens who drank more during those years did worse overall on the tests. The bad effects showed up even in teens who didn’t seem to have a real drinking disorder.
So how can you help your preteens get a good full night’s sleep?
Don’t let them play video games, or play with any electronic devices right before bed—aim for at least an hour of activities like conversation, music, a bath or reading on paper before bed. A comforting bedtime routine will prime your child for sleep.
Keep TVs, cellphones, e-readers and other devices a few feet away from the bed. Your child could reach for them during the night.
If your child doesn’t tend to get heartburn from eating before bed, feed him combinations of protein and carbs that make people sleepy. Oatmeal with milk, or toast with peanut butter, are good candidates. Yogurt, cheese, and bananas may also aid sleep.
Make sure he’s not itching, or congested from allergic reactions. Many people are allergic to dust mites, which accumulate in sheets and pillows. Get your child tested. But it’s a good idea in any case to have hypo-allergenic covers on your mattresses and pillows, and change the linen once a week. Wash linens in hot water.
Aim for a completely dark room. Put a night light in the hallway that turns off automatically or turn it off once your child is asleep. Try blackout curtains or sleep masks for kids who wake up too early.
A version of this story appears on Your Care Everywhere.