Child Development and the Importance of Sleep
It’s one of the great ironies of parenthood: Your kids need to get plenty of sleep, but sleep is almost always the last thing they want to do, and they will fight naps and going to bed with everything they have. Although you might be frustrated and ready to throw in the towel and let them just stay up, getting plenty of good quality sleep is vital to your kids’ healthy growth and development.
Despite the importance of sleep for children (and the fact that children should ideally spend about 40 percent of their early years sleeping), some public health leaders are concerned about sleep deprivation in childhood. Some have even gone so far as to label the state of sleeplessness in children as an epidemic, and are urging parents and pediatricians to make sleep a bigger priority. Doing so, they say, will help your child's development in several key ways.
One of the most obvious benefits of quality sleep for children is that sleep, in particular, deep sleep, is essential to healthy growth. The majority of human growth hormones are secreted during the deepest stages of sleep, so without enough sleep, children may not grow at an appropriate rate. This slowed and stunted growth doesn’t always affect height, either: Inadequate growth can also impede the development of your child’s heart and lungs. Ideally, children should spend about half their sleep time in the deepest stages of sleep to ensure adequate growth and development.
Reduced Chances of Illness and Obesity
Just like in adults, children need plenty of sleep to stay healthy -- both in terms of maintaining a strong immune system and a healthy body weight. Researchers have linked childhood obesity to inadequate sleep, and believe it has to do with the secretion of the hunger hormone ghrelin. When we don’t get enough sleep, the body produces more of this hormone, which helps control appetite. In turn, this can contribute to overeating and cravings for foods high in sugar and carbohydrates. Although sleep isn’t going to turn your children into a vegetable lover overnight, it will help them learn to regulate their own appetite as they get older. Not to mention, when kids are tired, they are less active, so they burn fewer calories, which contributes to weight gain.
Better Attention Span
Kids aren’t exactly known for their long attention spans in the first place, but when they are sleep-deprived, they are even less able to focus for long periods. And research shows that when kids constantly get fewer than 10 hours of sleep per night before age three, they are three times as likely to be diagnosed with an attention, hyperactivity, or impulse control disorder by age six.
The problem, of course, is that many of the signs and symptoms of these disorders mimic those of sleep deprivation, including being easily distracted and impulsive. This means that some children could be misdiagnosed with a disorder when they really need more sleep. In fact, studies have shown that getting even just 27 extra minutes of sleep per night can help improve kids’ focus at school and control their impulses. Therefore, it’s important to ensure your kids get the right amount of sleep each night and rule out any sleep issues when working on behavioral issues.
An improved attention span goes hand in hand with learning, so it should come as no surprise that kids who get plenty of sleep typically have an easier time learning and retaining information. During sleep, the brain processes new information, making connections between what is already stored in the neural pathways and creating new memories. Even in very young babies, the brain is extremely active during sleep; some neurologists even suggest that infants’ movements during sleep are indicative of a child's nervous system teaching the brain how it’s connected to muscles and how the body works. In older children, researchers have discovered that well-rested children retain more information, and retain it longer than those who are sleep-deprived, who forget at least 15 percent of what they learn when they don’t get rest.
Perhaps most importantly, developing good sleep habits in your children now will help them prioritize and good sleep habits throughout their lives. To help your child get quality sleep,
- Determine how much sleep is necessary. Talk with your doctor about how much sleep your child needs; on average, infants need 9-12 hours per day, including naps while toddlers should be getting 11-14 hours. School-age children need 9-11 hours per night, while adolescents and teens should aim for 8-10 hours of sleep per night.
- Establish bedtime routines. From the time your child is a baby, establish a consistent bedtime routine every night. Maintaining a regular bedtime and a “wind-down” routine that gets the kids ready for sleep can help reduce bedtime anxiety and sleep resistance and help ensure that they get enough rest.
- Watch for signs of sleep problems. Many children have difficulty falling asleep, deal with nightmares or night terrors, or suffer from other issues like bedwetting or sleepwalking. If your child appears to have challenges falling and staying asleep, talk with your pediatrician.