Updated: Oct 4, 2020
We all have that sigh of relief when our kids are finally asleep and we have have those precious minutes to rest, have adult conversations or watch something that isn't child friendly on TV. But having our children in a good sleep routine and gaining the right amount of sleep is much more than giving us some much needed sanity (although that is a good reason too).
Sleep is vital for our health, mood and development. Having adequate sleep is just as important as eating well and exercising. Sleep is directly linked to immune function, growth, concentration, memory, mood, the ability to learn and even coordination. Sleep is so incredibly important to well-being but is also one of the biggest issues parents have with their children. Getting kids to sleep, having them wake up several times a night or having them wake before the crack of dawn are all common problems that parents experience. I have often heard parents say that they have just given up and adjusted to their child's poor sleep style. While I understand this completely, especially if this has just been a way to "survive" and get some much needed sleep for yourself, I suggest that we understand why sleep is such a priority and worth supporting.
Sleep keeps us healthy
There is a lot of research to show that sleep is directly linked to our immune function. When we sleep our body produces proteins called cytokines which fight infection. There are studies that have shown that if an adult gets less than 7 hours of sleep a night, they are 3 times more likely to catch a cold than adults how have 8 hours sleep (Mahoney, 2014). That is just a difference of one hour of sleep, and yet it has a huge impact on our ability to stay well.
Growth hormone is also produced when we sleep. This is why babies will sleep for long periods, their body is doing everything that it needs to grow and develop. It does all this by just sleeping.
Concentration and attention
As adults, we know that when we haven't had enough sleep, we can't think straight. We tend to be more impulsive and not able to think through the consequences. Now imagine that in an underdeveloped brain where logical thinking and impulse control is already limited. There is no way that a sleep deprived child would be able to sit in a classroom and listen to a teacher or complete academic tasks.
Interestingly, the symptoms of sleep deprivation and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are very similar (Owens, 2016). It can be a bit of the "chicken and the egg" problem as a high percentage of children with ADHD also have difficulty sleeping. But it is important to determine if a child has a sleep disorder when considering ADHD as they are so closely aligned.
Memory and learning
Studies have shown that young children are able to retain information and perform better when they took a nap as apposed to the times that they didn't have a nap. This is because sleep is so important for the brain to function. When we sleep there are neurotransmitters, chemicals that cause brain cells to communicate, that help you to remember what you have heard, learned or seen while you were awake. Sleep is also linked to neuroplasticity, which is the ability for the brain to grow new pathways and develop. So, when our kids are getting enough sleep their brains are able to remember what they have learned and form new pathways so that what they learned becomes easier.
We all know that when we haven't had enough sleep, we tend to be cranky and our tolerances are really low. Now combine this with poor development of emotion regulation and that pretty much sums up the over tired child laying on the floor crying because someone else opened the front door first, or whatever the trigger was. However, sleep deprivations can be far more detrimental when it comes to mood. Poor sleep has been linked to increased levels of anxiety and depression in both children and adults.
Children who have sleep disorders have been found to have excessive brain arousal during sleep. That means that their brain is continuing to go into fight or flight mode during their sleep. The ripple effect is that this changes their hormones, cortisol (stress hormone) levels and will impact their mood. I will never forget seeing a young boy in my office who was highly anxious. I saw him several times and tried to give him strategies to manage the anxiety. Then one day he came into my office as a completely different child. He was calm and happy, something I had never seen him be before. When I asked what had happened, his parents told me that they had discovered that the boy had sleep apnea and this had now been treated. In other words, the only thing that had changed was that he was getting enough sleep.
What is enough sleep
National Sleep Foundation guidelines recommend that children from 1-3 years should be having 12-14 hours of sleep a day. Children 3-5 years should have 11-13 hours and 5-12 year old children should have 10-11 hours of sleep a night. There is no way to be exact in this, everyone is different. Some kids will need more and some will need less but the research does suggest that sleep should be around these times. Other research has shown that it doesn't take long for the negative impacts of sleep to become evident in children. Research has shown that just one our less a night for four nights is enough to negatively impact children's health. That is something to be aware of during school holidays.
I wish there were magic cures to help with sleep issues. The truth is there is no one thing you can do to help, it is lots of little things that need to be done to help improve sleep and we have to be consistent with them.
Routine: sleep needs to happen at the same time every night. Our body gets into a rhythm when it comes to sleep. Have a calm time before bed so that the body is able to wind down. Have bath, teeth, stories etc and try and do them at the same time and in the same order. I know this isn't always going to work, but if you can do it their body will automatically calm with the routine.
Limit screen time: we know that the blue light from screens inhibits the body from producing melatonin which helps regulate sleep. Screens also stimulate the brain even though we think kids are calm watching the ipad, their brains are actually overstimulated which is going to make it very difficult to sleep. There should be no screens at least an hour before bed and definitely no screens in the bedroom
Give them a way to calm their brain: kids that are anxious often have difficulty calming their thoughts enough for sleep. When all is quiet, that is when their thoughts seem to come flooding in. These are the kids that come out 10 times because they have to tell you something. If you tell them they can't come out, that will just increase their anxiety. Let them know how many times they are allowed to come out, have a set number. Hopefully, eventually they won't need to come out for all of those times, but knowing that they can may reduce their anxiety. If they have more things on their mind, it can be helpful to have a notebook next to the bed to write down their thoughts. That way they don't feel that they have to keep thinking about those thoughts, they are safe in the notebook. I also suggested doing some controlled breathing or a meditation that they like at bedtime. This will help their body and brain calm enough to sleep.
While these guideline are helpful to get the body where it needs to be to sleep, they may not work all the time. However, sleep is very important so if there is consistent problems with sleep, I strongly suggest that you see a Pediatrician or sleep specialist.
Sleep is something we often neglect and take for granted, but sleep is just as important for our health as eating well and exercising. If we want our kids to grow, develop, learn and be happy, we can't overlook the importance of sleep.