In our increasingly sleep-deprived culture, it’s easy to assume that it’s fine to miss a little shut-eye now and again. Not so. Negative effects caused by too little sleep, like impaired concentration and irritability, can be measured almost immediately, and over time a lack of sleep can have very serious health implications. For children, proper sleep is especially critical: sleep affects behavior and mood, increases stamina and agility, helps growing brains retain new information and even increases creativity.
Sleep is as essential to good health as diet and exercise.
There’s a good reason that babies spend over 50% of their 24-hour day sleeping. Sleep plays an essential role in the growth of brain tissue. During sleep, connections between different parts of the brain are established and strengthened.
“Sleep is the power source that keeps your mind alert and calm,” says Dr. Marc Weissbluth, sleep expert and author, in his book "Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child."
“Every night and at every nap, sleep recharges the brain’s battery. Sleeping well increases brainpower, just as weight lifting builds stronger muscles…”
In a 2017 study published in "Brain & Language," researchers found that infants exposed to several new words were better at remembering the words if they napped immediately after hearing them, as compared to infants who did not nap but played quietly. This led the authors of the study to suggest that sleep enhances language encoding and retention, a benefit that should accumulate over time.
Long-term learning effects are certainly not the only benefits of healthy sleep. Temperament is also greatly influenced by having a solid, consistent sleep routine. Babies that don’t get enough sleep or good quality sleep are often irritable, fussy and whiny, and are generally less sociable and less able to entertain themselves. This can be a vicious cycle; when babies are overtired, they have a much harder time falling asleep, which increases the potential for fussy behavior again the next day. These issues can also have cumulative effects that begin to become apparent as children begin entering the school environment.
Sleep continues to be of paramount importance for toddlers and young children, playing a major role in healthy mental and physical development, as well as mood. With new social experiences on the horizon for many children at this age, sleep patterns over their first few years of life, whether good or bad, also start to become apparent.
Weissbluth says that three-year-old children who nap well are more adaptable, meaning that they more easily transition to new situations. “Adaptability is the single most important trait for school success,” he says.
Toddlers who don’t get enough sleep or experience interrupted sleep can be moody, irritable, fidgety and hyperactive. They can be argumentative, have more difficulty concentrating during playtime and are generally more prone to accidents.
Just like with babies, sleep plays an essential role in giving toddlers and kids the ability to process and understand new information that is acquired each day. The Millennium Cohort Study, for example, published in the British Medical Journal in 2013, found that in a test group of 11,000 seven-year-old children, reading, math and spatial awareness in those with consistently good sleep habits were better than those whose consistently irregular bedtimes and poor sleep habits started before age three.
How to improve sleep at any age
It’s never too late to introduce healthy sleep habits, and the first step is to establish quality sleep goals for your child.
• Sleep is uninterrupted. Avoid having gadgets and glowing screens in the room, and be sure your home is hushed during nap and nighttime hours.
• Sleep time is sufficient. The amount of sleep children need changes as they grow, but not as much as you might think!
• Sleep is synchronized. As children age, their body clocks will tell them to sleep at slightly different times. You can help ensure this doesn’t mean they sleep less, but simply adjust their sleep and wake times accordingly.
Source: Journal Sentinel