Maybe you pass by the package of cookies at the grocery store in an effort to cut down on the sugar in your family's diet because you've heard processed sugar can lead to a wide variety of metabolic problems. Or maybe your family takes a daily walk around the park after dinner because they say that walking 30 minutes a day significantly lowers your risk of chronic disease. Perhaps you're enrolling your child in the library's summer reading program because his school teacher told you that reading will enhance his thinking and communication skills. Maybe you have been writing in a gratitude journal every night because your friend mentioned that it's helped her feel more positivity in her life.
Health. It's a pretty loaded word. A lot contributes to one's health. And there are a lot of types of health - physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual, etc. There seems to be increasing discussion these days about how important it is to focus on all aspects of our health.
But what about sleep? Does it seem like sleep should just come naturally? Like it's just that thing you and your family do at night before you start a new day filled with as many "healthful" activities as you can manage?
Well, based on the science and my personal and professional experience, I can tell you that it's not just that thing we do at night. Sleep is foundational. It is critical. Sleep affects every single aspect of one's health. If the quality of one's sleep is suffering, no doubt all aspects of their health are also suffering to one degree or another. Children are especially susceptible to the adverse affects of poor quality sleep. Because sleep is so imperative to a happy, productive life, it is incredibly important that we teach our children healthy sleep habits.
Here are 11 reasons why sleep should be a top priority for your family:
1) Physical Growth
Human growth hormone (HGH) is a key component for healthy growth in children of all ages. The hormone stimulates and coordinates the growth of all parts of the body, from bones to muscles to nerves. Sleep is the single biggest factor that affects HGH production. HGH is released in the highest amounts during slow wave deep sleep. Italian researchers studied children with deficient levels of HGH and found that those children slept less deeply than average children do. HGH deficiency impairs a child’s immune system, as well as weakens the strength of the child’s heart and lungs.
During sleep, children (and adults) produce proteins known as cytokines, which the body relies on to fight infection, illness, and stress. Research shows that too little sleep impacts the number of cytokines on hand, and therefore the body’s ability to ward off infections. Adequate sleep helps protect the body from infection, illness, and stress.
A new study by researchers at Princeton University found that children who get less than the recommended 9 to 11 hours of sleep per night experience more rapid cell aging than children who get the recommended amount of sleep. Researchers observed children’s telomeres, which are sections of DNA located at the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres shorten and fray as a result of aging, physical and mental disease, and, as this study found, insufficient sleep. The researchers found that children who slept less than the recommended amount had shorter telomeres than those who slept enough. Each hour less that a child slept was correlated to telomeres about 1.5% shorter. While the long-term affects of this telomere shortening are still unknown, from what is known, it’s not a good indication. The authors wrote, “We provide preliminary evidence that children with shorter sleep durations have shorter telomeres. This finding is consistent with a broader literature indicating that suboptimal sleep duration is a risk for increased physiological stress and impaired health.”
There is growing evidence to suggest that short sleep duration results in metabolic changes that can contribute to the development of obesity. Sleep loss leads to changes in several hormones, including leptin, ghreiln, insulin, cortisol, and growth hormone. These hormonal variations may contribute to energy imbalance and lead to obesity.
A 2015 study found that children who have the shortest sleep duration (about 10 hours) are 76% more likely to be overweight or obese compared with children having the longest sleep duration (about 12 hours). Researchers also found that with every additional hour of sleep per day, the risk of a child becoming overweight or obese was reduced by 21%.
Children who don’t get enough quality sleep are more prone to accidents because they are clumsier and more impulsive. A study of Chinese children found that those who were short sleepers (those who slept less than 9 hours per night) were 30% more likely to have injuries that demanded medical attention. And 91% of children who had two or more injuries over a 12-month period got fewer than 9 hours of sleep per night.
In a 2009 study of children between the ages of 5 and 6 years, researchers found that children who slept less than 9 hours each day had 3-5 times the chance of developing behavior problems.
Dr. Dean Beebe, director of the neuropsychology program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, says that inadequate sleep, whether too short or poor quality, causes specific changes in mood and thinking. “First, inadequate sleep causes everyone, including children, to be biased towards seeing the world in a more negative light and less in a positive one. Even more, inadequate sleep causes children (perhaps even more than adults) to have problems regulating the ups and downs in their moods, leading to wider and more rapid reactions to relatively minor events. Children who don’t get enough sleep also don’t pay attention as well, are less likely to think before they act, and don’t seem able to solve problems as well.”
7) Attention Span
Children who consistently sleep fewer than 10 hours a night before the age of 3 are three times more likely to have hyperactivity and impulsivity problems by the age of 6. But research from 2012 has shown that just an additional 27 minutes of sleep per night makes it easier for children to manage their moods and impulses.
Children’s poor sleep habits can result in behavioral and attention problems and even a misdiagnosis of ADHD. While adults experience sleep deprivation as drowsiness and sluggishness, sleepless children often become wired, moody, and strong-willed and have trouble focusing, sitting still, and getting along with other children. Researchers even use the term “faux ADHD” to describe the diagnosis given to children who exhibit behaviors typical to those of children with ADHD, but who actually are experiencing the affects of insufficient sleep.
A 2012 study suggests a link between inadequate sleep and ADHD. Researchers followed 11,000 British children for six years, starting when they were 6 months old. The children whose sleep was of poor length and quality were 40-100% more likely than children getting sufficient sleep to develop behavioral problems resembling ADHD.
Dr. Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Children's National Medical Center says that “the symptoms of sleep deprivation and ADHD, including impulsivity and distractibility, mirror each other almost exactly.” Tired children can be impulsive and distracted even thought they don’t have ADHD. While no one knows exactly how many children are misdiagnosed with the condition, ruling out sleep issues is an important part of the diagnosis, Dr. Owens says.
Evidence demonstrates that newborn infants learn in their sleep. Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27753460 ) tested sleeping newborns who were between 1 and 2 days old by playing a tone for the baby, followed by a gentle puff of air on the eyelids. Within 20 minutes, the sleeping babies had already learned to anticipate the air puff after the tone by squinting their eyes. The babies were also more likely to display the conditioned response during deep sleep compared to active REM sleep.
Night and day sleep promote learning in children of all ages. Neuroscientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (http://www.pnas.org/content/110/43/17267.full) taught a group of preschoolers a memory game. The children were then tested in the afternoon on multiple days under two different conditions. In one, the game was followed by an afternoon nap of at least one hour. In the other, the children were kept awake. On days when the experiment did not include a nap, the children forgot nearly 15% of what they had learned in the memory game. On days when the experiment included a nap, the children didn’t experience any drop in performance, remembering everything they’d learned hours earlier. The researchers also found that the more regularly naps occurred (more than 5 days per week), the more the children benefited and actually improved their recall after sleeping.
In 2009, researchers determined that brain events called “sharp wave ripples” are responsible for consolidating memory. These ripples transfer learned information to the neocortex of the brain, where long-term memories are stored. Sharp wave ripples occur mostly during the deepest stages of sleep. After about 3 to 4 months of age, children enter the deepest stages of sleep during the first half of the night and during their afternoon nap.
10) Emotional Health
Children who experience inadequate or disrupted sleep are more likely to develop depression and anxiety disorders later in life according to recent research. Researchers temporarily restricted the sleep of children between the ages of 7 and 11. Their findings revealed that after just two nights of poor sleep, children derive less pleasure from positive things, are less reactive to them, and less likely to recall details about the positive experiences later.
The lead researcher, Candice Alfano, said that they “focus[ed] on childhood because similar to problems with anxiety and depression, sleep habits and sleep patterns develop early in life and can be enduring.” She explained that without adequate sleep, people are less likely to seek out positive or rewarding experiences if they require effort, such as social or leisure activities. Over time, these behavioral changes can elevate risk for depression and an overall poorer quality of life.
"Healthy sleep is critical for children's psychological well-being. Continually experiencing inadequate sleep can eventually lead to depression, anxiety, and other types of emotional problems. Parents, therefore, need to think about sleep as an essential component of overall health in the same way they do nutrition, dental hygiene, and physical activity. If a child has problems waking up in the morning or is sleepy during the day, then their nighttime sleep is probably inadequate. This can result for several reasons, such as a bedtime that is too late, non-restful sleep during the night, or an inconsistent sleep schedule."
11) YOUR health (and sanity!)
I don’t think I need to tell you how you are affected by poor sleep - you’ve felt it, no doubt! When your children aren’t getting the sleep they need, neither are you. No one is the best version of themselves when they aren’t getting the quality sleep they need. Sleep is imperative to the entire health and well-being of a family.
Children’s sleep is often overlooked by parents because we live busy lives and making sleep a priority can sometimes be considered an afterthought or an unattainable goal. But when sleep is prioritized early on in a child’s life, a foundation for lifelong healthy sleep habits is established that will benefit the child in countless ways now and for the rest of their lives.
If you need help establishing a healthy foundation of sleep for your little one, contact me today for a complimentary 15-minute consultation.