Childhood sleep: why getting enough is important
Childhood sleep should be the best sleep of your life. I’m going to lay that comment out there and stand by it. Sleep has so many benefits for all of us, but it is even more important for children. That is why getting enough of it is so important.
Getting enough good sleep is vital if you want to perform at your best. And this goes for babies, toddlers and older children too. Now I don’t want to confuse the issue with newborns and young infants who still need to feed during the night, so let’s concentrate on sleep from 6 months up.
I know that it can be considered “normal” for a child to wake frequently during the night after 6 months of age (just ask any mother’s group). But just because it’s normal, i.e. commonplace, it doesn’t mean its right. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that everyone wakes during the night (we all sleep in cycles, and wake briefly between them), but if we can transition back to sleep within a few minutes we don’t remember waking and we ultimately sleep better. And the trick really is to consolidate this sleep, and get enough of it for maximum benefit. So what are some of those benefits and why is it so important for children?
The early years of life (especially the first three) are exceptionally important in the development of a child’s brain. This is when there are billions of neural connections being formed from everything he or she sees, hears, touches and smells. These experiences shape the brain for thinking, moving, feeling and learning.
An infant’s brain is primed for learning from birth, and the connections are formed based on what they experience. When babies are sleeping, their brain is literally building and strengthening connections between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Indeed, well connected and symmetrical brain hemispheres have been labelled the key to maximising memory, learning and creativity later in life. Lack of good sleep hinders this developmental process (the brain connections) right from the start.
Although the majority of studies on development have looked at the first few years of life, it’s important to note that there are prime times for different stages of development from birth until 12 years of age. Sleep is just as important for brain development in children aged 3 -12 years.
Studies have confirmed that during sleep our brains reinforce and store what has been learnt during the day. According to some researchers, this process is even more effective in children than in adults. Moreover, several studies have shown that babies with more efficient night time sleep (that is they spent a greater percentage of time asleep at night) had higher cognitive scores than those who didn’t sleep as well.
In the millennium cohort study, which is based on data from 11,000 children, the researchers noted that children who had irregular bedtimes from the age of birth until 3 years of age were negatively affected in skills relating to reading, maths and spatial awareness. This delay continued at 7 years, with girls being more affected than boys. Another study found that sleeping less than 10 hours a night from birth to 3 years caused a higher likelihood of language and reading difficulties, as well as ADHD. And that these problems persisted later in life.
One way to tell if a child is receiving enough sleep is via their mood. Inadequate sleep, either not enough sleep or sleep of poor quality, causes changes in mood and thinking. Indeed, inadequate sleep causes everyone (adults and children alike) to see the world more negatively. So a child is not as happy or well-adjusted as he or she would be with better sleep.
Research confirms that children who don’t get sufficient sleep at night are more likely to be non-compliant, withdrawn and anxious (as well as generally bad tempered). Furthermore, fatigued infants (those who missed a nap) have been shown to be more easily frustrated and more distressed by a brief separation from their mothers than well-rested infants. And babies who sleep more at night have been found to be more adaptable, get less distracted during the day and have an easier temperament than those who don’t sleep enough.
For school-age children, research has shown that adding as little as 27 minutes of extra sleep each night makes it easier for them to manage their moods and impulses and focus better on schoolwork.
Growth hormone is released during deep sleep, and extreme cases of sleep deprivation have been linked to failure to thrive. As more deep sleep occurs in the first half of the night, having appropriate bedtimes and being able to consolidate that first chunk of sleep really helps a child grow (literally). Interestingly, Italian researchers studying children with deficient levels of growth hormone have noted that they sleep less deeply than average children do.
Good sleep is also linked to better immune function, cell repair and managing stress, the benefits mentioned above really are just the tip of the iceberg.
Sleep is as important as good nutrition and a loving secure home environment! It is a universal human need and quite simply your child’s future depends upon it. The better your child sleeps, the better their overall outcome. It’s certainly something to ponder.
If you’d like to improve your child’s sleep, let’s chat. I offer a free initial 15 minute phone to call to discuss how I can help. You can book one HERE. And while you’re at it, sign up for my monthly emails and follow along on Facebook and Instagram too.
Because everyone needs a good night’s sleep!