Gazing at your beautiful baby as he sleeps you wouldn’t guess that internally his body is anything but at rest. While your baby sleeps his reduced physical activity enables his brain to carry out vital jobs that cannot be as efficiently accomplished during wakefulness. Sleep gives his brain a chance to turn its attention to the important job of consolidating memory and learning. Making sure your child gets good, sound sleep ensures he or she will have a sound foundation for proper mind and body development. The American Academy of Pediatrics has linked babies’ insufficient sleep to everything from future obesity to behavior problems in kids. As Marc Weissbluth, MD, the author of “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child,” explains, children who don’t get enough consolidated REM sleep have shorter attention spans, so they don’t learn as well. These babies also release more of the stress hormone cortisol, setting them up for frequent night wakings and stunted naps. In short, sleep = brain power and nourishment for the body.
2. Children Who Get the Sleep they Need, Behave Better and are Generally More Enjoyable
This statement is true for children of all ages and is one that most of us have observed. A baby who has skipped a nap is usually quite fussy and unpleasant. And imagine the toddler who has not gotten in his needed sleep for the day – phew tantrums ensue, watch out! This is because when we don’t get the sleep we need, our body and brain are stressed and for a child it is easy to see how that can lead to poor behavior. While this relationship between lack of sleep and crankiness is generally accepted as true, there have recently been many studies on the topic that offer further proof. For example, this study from the University of Colorado Boulder measured the sleep patterns of toddlers aged two to three and found that for toddlers “missing even a single nap causes them to be less positive, more negative and have decreased cognitive engagement.” I think this quote from the study’s author Professor Monique LeBourgeois sums it all up: “Just like good nutrition, adequate sleep is a basic need that gives children the best chance of getting what is most important from the people and things they experience each day.” Another recent study published in the journal of Pediatrics (authored by Reut Gruber, director of the attention behavior and sleep lab at the Douglas Institute at McGill University, in Quebec) looked at children ages 7-11. One group of children went to bed earlier and got about 27 extra minutes of sleep a night while the other group stayed up later than their bedtime and lost about 54 minutes of sleep each night. “Students who were sleep-deprived not only seemed overly tired, but were more impulsive and irritable than their well-rested classmates. They were quick to cry, lose their tempers or get frustrated.” Yet another study, (this one from researchers in the United Kingdom) discusses the importance of regular bedtimes in ensuring our kids are emotionally at their best. “While all of us are crankier and less pleasant when we don’t get enough sleep, this has a particular importance for children, because experts believe that sleep is important for the development of parts of the brain that regulate behavior” explains Dr. Claire McCarthy. But the really exciting part of this study: this is reversible! Children who started having set bedtime routines caught up and behavioral issues improved.
3. Sleep = Brain Power
Did you know that the higher ones IQ is the more they sleep? Definitely an interesting fact, and one that points out the importance of sleep in intelligence and academic achievement. While the amount of sleep your child gets does not automatically predict their IQ, it is certainly important for them to preform at their best. Dr. Avi Sadeh of Tel Aviv University, conducted a study where at random a group of 4th-6th graders were instructed to sleep either more or less. The results were astonishing. “A loss of one hour of sleep is equivalent to [the loss of] two years of cognitive maturation and development,” Sadeh explains. This is like a 6th grader performing at a 4th graders level after just three nights of poor sleep! Further, studies have shown that lack of sleep cannot allow a child to concentrate in class and therefore they often miss out on new material. If this happens day after day a child can certainly fall behind. Sleep has even been correlated to academic success for the littlest of students. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts found that naptime for preschoolers allows them to better process and remember the information they learn in school. One group of students napped after a memory game while the other group was kept awake following the game. The children who slept approximately 77 minutes were able to remember 75% of what they learned – a full 10% more than the children who did not nap. So it appears, sleep is critical to learning no matter your age.
If the information above isn’t enough to convince you to make your child’s sleep a priority, then what about your well being! To be a healthy well functioning adult, you need to get plenty of consolidated sleep. Remember that plan to exercise more this year to improve your health? Well adults who are not getting enough sleep have a much harder time motivating themselves to stick with a regular exercise regimen. Recent studies have linked poor quality sleep in older adults to a faster decline in the size of the frontal, temporal and parietal areas of the brain – the areas of the brain that are used in decision making and learning. What’s scarier? Too little sleep can lead to and speed up dementia in adult men. Wow, a good night sleep is more important that one may think! If your child is sleeping well, then chances are you will be too!
The Tip Take-Away: Make sleep a top priority and you will likely have a happier, self-assured, less demanding, and more sociable child. In turn, you will likely get some more sleep yourself enabling you to be a healthier adult and a better parent. It’s a win, win for all!