Why Sleep Is Important for Your Child’s Health

A child’s active lifestyle always seems at odds with the prospect of bedtime. Even though their days are filled with physically and mentally draining activities, most kids dread going to bed. As a result, parents often fight a constant battle when it comes to ensuring their child gets enough sleep.

Children need more sleep than adults. The right quantity and quality of sleep is essential to their growth and development. Inadequate sleep can make children cranky and tired. But, good sleep, or lack thereof, impacts so much more than that.

The Stages of Sleep

It’s important to understand these stages of sleep and their impact on your child’s health. As you begin to fall asleep, the brain gradually prepares your body for this process. A sleep cycle has five different stages that affect the body and mind.

Stage 1

During this first stage of light sleep, children will wake easily. Sounds in their surrounding environments like a car horn or nearby movement will cause them to stir. This period may last for 5-10 minutes. The muscle activity slows down, and the eyes move slowly. Some children may also experience a sudden sensation of falling.

Stage 2

In this stage of the sleep cycle, your child experiences a slightly deeper sleep. The body begins to slow down its processes and prepares for deep sleep. The brain sends signals to the muscles to relax. Eye movement also stops, and the heart rate slows down. Your child’s temperature will also dip during this period. The body will now be ready to enter the next three stages of deep sleep.

Stage 3

This stage is known as slow-wave sleep. This is because the brain waves begin to slow down and result in “delta waves”. These occur along with smaller and faster waves. During this time, your child may experience parasomnia behaviors. These responses include sleepwalking, night terrors, talking or bed wetting. If your child wakes during this stage, they may feel disoriented for a few minutes. However, it is difficult to wake up during this stage naturally. The body is especially desensitized to room temperature changes during this period. Your child will generally sleep soundly during stage 3.

Stage 4

Stage 4 is also a time of deep sleep. It is much deeper than the previous stages. The brain only produces delta waves in this state. This means the disorientation from suddenly being awoken will be much higher.

REM

Rapid eye movement (REM) is the fifth and final stage of sleep. Although the body is relaxed, the eyes move back and forth rapidly under the eyelids. Increased breathing, heart rate, and brain activity takes place now. At this point, your child is most likely dreaming. Since dreams can mimic everyday reality, the body has a built-in protective measure. The voluntary muscles are paralyzed to ensure they cannot harm themselves while dreaming. As kids age, their REM sleep stages get shorter. An infant’s sleep cycle usually consists of about 50% of REM sleep. REM sleep reduces progressively with age. Adults, for instance, will experience almost 50% of their sleep cycle in stage 2. REM takes up about 20% of the sleep cycle while the rest is divided among the other stages.

These five stages make up a complete sleep cycle which takes about 90 minutes. Repeating cycles will vary as the night progresses. The REM stage may be shorter in the first few phases and get longer during the later sleep cycles.

The Benefits of Sleep

There are multiple benefits to a good night’s sleep. Since your child’s body and brain are just developing, it is crucial for them to receive proper rest.

Sleep Boosts Learning and Memory

The primary benefit of sleeping is the cognitive development of the child. Until the age of 21, the quantity and quality of sleep significant impacts a person’s learning processes. Lack of sleep results in overworked neurons. This lessens their ability to coordinate information or access information. Lack of judgment and misinterpretation of events are also common consequences of poor sleep.

Studies have shown that memory formation and retention are affected by the lack of sleep. The inability to carry out the three main functions has been linked to the lack of sleep. Acquisition, consolidation, and recall are all affected. New information is always being introduced to your child, and their brain must get enough rest to process it. Good sleep strengthens the brain’s neural connections. This results in increased acquisition, consolidation and recall. All these processes contribute to the formation and recollection of memories. This is why it is advised that children get a good night’s sleep before an important exam.

Helps the Heart

Insufficient sleep is not only harmful to the brain but also affects the heart. The risk of cardiovascular disease is far higher in those who are sleep deprived. Irregular sleep patterns have been linked to high blood pressure, diabetes and coronary heart disease. Children with sleeping disorders, in particular, are said to have excessive brain arousal during sleep. Blood glucose and cortisol levels remain elevated. This may lead to the eventual consequence of heart disease.

Sleep has been proven to protect children from vascular damage. Even a single extra hour of sleep can go a long way in protecting the health of your child.

Promotes Growth

Growing children will particularly benefit from sleep. During non-REM deep sleep (stages 3 and 4), growth hormones are secreted. A child who seems to be having a good growth curve may suddenly halt or slow down due to the lack of sleep. Disorders such as sleep apnea, are the primary culprit for the decrease in growth. This disorder is caused by obstructions in the upper airway; which limits breathing. The child is awoken frequently from a deep sleep and into lighter sleep stages. This reduces hormone secretions and hampers growth.

Affects Weight

From infancy, it is possible for your child to fall prey to obesity. Parents who are trained to identify hunger cries and distress cries will be able to know how to soothe the baby. The common practice is to feed the baby as it almost always calms them down. However, sometimes the cry is out of distress and not hunger. In such cases, swaddling and rocking the baby is a better option than feeding.

Sleep deficiency also causes an increase in appetite. Excessive food intake during the day may be a result of inadequate sleep at night. The hunger hormone (ghrelin) is increased, and the satiety hormone (leptin) is decreased due to sleep deficiency. Hence, snacking and overeating is common among such children. They are also are more prone to making poor food choices. This results in more consumption of carbohydrates and high-fat food. Children who have a genetic predisposition to gain weight must be especially careful. Adequate sleep will help curb such tendencies to put on weight.

Increases Attention Span

ADD (attention deficit disorder) and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) are concerns for many parents. These disorders and sleep deficiency have overlapping symptoms. Your child may become easily distracted, hyperactive or prone to impulsive acts. Lack of focus or paying attention to the task at hand may also be observed. Also, moodiness and hyperactivity can cause difficulties in getting along with their peers. For this reason, many children are diagnosed with ADHD. But, tired and sleep-deprived children can exhibit these same symptoms. This alone does not mean they suffer from this condition. For such children, good quality sleep can improve their attention span. A simple half hour of extra sleep can promote a better mood and disposition. A well-rested child is better prepared for the challenges of their day.

Most doctors rule out the lack of sleep before making an ADHD diagnosis. That said, children diagnosed with ADHD can also have trouble falling asleep. This can further intensify disorder related symptoms.

Improves Immunity

Catching a cold is often dreaded as it makes children (and adults) exhausted and tired. However, the body is naturally built to fight off these illnesses and infections. The protein, cytokines, is produced during sleep. It not only heals but reduces the body’s vulnerability when exposed to viruses. Similarly, lack of sleep decreases the production of T-cells. This increases the risk of illnesses. Immune defense is significantly increased in those who sleep for longer hours at night.

Lack of sleep has been proven to lower immune response to vaccination against the influenza virus. As a parent, protecting your child from illness is one of your primary objectives. Ensuring they receive enough sleep helps ward off exposure of germs and viruses.

Reduce Risk of Injury

Children are usually prone to falling and hurting themselves. A lack of sleep increases the risk of injury due to impaired cognitive function. While this is true at any age, children are more at risk of injury. Continuous physical changes a child goes through makes them more vulnerable than adults.

One study observed the incidence of sports injuries in adolescents due to the lack of sleep. Adolescent athletes who slept for less than 8 hours were 1.7 times more likely to have an injury. As they grow older, this risk will only increase. This makes proper sleep essential for physically active children and adolescents.

Improves Mood

Finally, the most important indicator of sleep deficiency is a sudden change in mood. A single night of inadequate sleep can increase your child’s irritability and short temper. Chronic sleep deprivation can result in mood disorders such as depression. These disorders are also responsible for further curbing sleep. This creates a nasty cycle if left unaddressed.

The psychological impact of sleep is crucial for the mental state of your child. Improving the quantity and quality of sleep can improve both mood and behavior.

Recommended Hours of Sleep

Depending on your child’s age and daily activities, sleep requirements may vary. The following are the recommended hours of sleep for kids of each age group:

Age Hours of Sleep Needed
0-3 Months 14-17
4-11 Months 12-15
1-2 Years 11-14
3-5 Years 10-13
6-13 Years 9-11
14-17 Years 8-10

Bedtime Routine

A proper bedtime routine is a huge contributor to your child’s healthy lifestyle. Good childhood sleep habits are more likely to carry over to good sleep patterns adults. There are several steps parents can take to ensure their child follows a healthy bedtime routine:

Consistent Bedtime

Consistency is key to setting a bedtime routine. Children find it more difficult to fall asleep after 9 PM. A bedtime before 9 PM can be conducive to receiving a higher quantity of quality sleep.

Along with this, bedtime rituals have also been proven to work. This can last no more than 40 minutes. The activities during this time should low activity. Reading a bedtime story, taking a bath or listening to soothing sounds are all recommended ideas for bedtime rituals. The child will then know when it is time to wind down and promptly falls asleep. A consistent bedtime routine goes a long way in establishing and strengthening your child’s circadian rhythm.

The Right Environment

Your child’s bedroom should also reflect a soothing environment that is conducive to sleep. Neutral wall colors such as lavender, green, pink, etc. are more conducive to sleep. It is also advised to turn off all bright lights while sleeping. Some children may find this difficult as they are afraid of the dark room. A small night light with a timer can be installed in such cases. The temperature of the room must also be maintained and controlled. A slightly cooler room will help the child experience deep sleep.

Positive Associations

Finally, the most common mistake when it comes to establishing a bedtime routine is to use the bedroom or bedtime as a punishment. By creating negative associations with the bed, your child will begin to despise going to bed on time. Similarly, parents are discouraged from offering the opportunity to stay up late as a reward for good behavior. Forming positive associations with bedtime is crucial in establishing the child’s natural tendency to receive adequate sleep.

As you can see, it is extremely important for your child to receive a good night’s sleep. Keeping these tips in mind as a guideline for establishing great sleep habits with lifelong benefits.

 

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