We all know that sleep serves a purpose, but many parents are surprised to learn the complex functions of sleep in children. Sleep is a time of intense neurologic and physiologic activity; there are times where the brain is more active during sleep than awake. For children this is especially true. By the age of three the average child has spent more time sleeping than all wakeful times combined. Research clearly shows that sleep affects behavior, health and learning. This is true for young and old alike. For the purposes of this article the primary focus will be on the role of sleep in children.
Many parents are surprised to learn that minor sleep loss over a period of time can completely alter a child in the aforementioned areas. Being overtired changes a child’s physiology. This hormonal shift is what affects a child’s ability to feel, perform and behave well. A child’s behavior provides the most obvious signs of an overtired child.
Parents have experienced accrued sleep loss at one time or another. If we were to make a list of how we felt and behaved when we were behind on our sleep, followed by a list of how we perceive our children feel and behave when they are behind on their sleep, my guess is there would be significant overlap. Parents and children exhibit similar behavior when overtired, however, many times children are expected to behave as if they are well rested whether they are or not.
Examples of what this list might include is: clingy, grumpy, irritable, short tempered, argumentative, cries more, hits and/or grabs more, whines, etc. An important addition to this list is hyperactivity. Many parents believe that their child is not tired until 9 or 10pm at night because the child is “bouncing of the walls” and are surprised to learn that this seemingly wide awake behavior is a classic sign of being tired. Although it seems counterintuitive, the body has a neurohormonal stress response in order to adapt and stay awake. This physiologic response increases levels of cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. These hormones help jolt the body so it is able to remain awake. The more overtired children become the more these hormones are released, thus making it increasingly difficult to fall asleep and perpetuating a cycle of poor sleep habits.
If you reflect on how likable you are when overtired, it is easy to extend this to children. Many researchers have found that toddlers with sleep problems, most typically night waking, had more difficult temperaments. Two to five year olds that slept less had higher levels of aggression and children who were tired complained more about feeling bored leading people to view these children as lazy. Three year olds who napped were more adaptable to their environment than those who did not. What does this mean? Children who adapt well are able to make transitions easier both at home and within the classroom and are better at socializing and playing well with peers.
It is important for parents to understand that children do not outgrow these behaviors without the help of adequate sleep. Research is clear in this assertion as well. Children with sleep problems that persisted from eight months to three years of age illustrated increased tantrums and other management difficulties by the age of three. On the flip side, studies that analyzed children ages seven to eleven found that those who slept more experienced less hopelessness, a better self-concept and were more adept at sociability and activity.
Clearly it is in our children’s best interest to ensure quality sleep. Not only will they feel and behave better, but how others perceive them–teachers, peers or family–will be positively influence which directly impacts their own self concept.
Realizing that lack of sleep affects mood and behavior is easy because it is tangible. We can feel it in ourselves and see it in others. Lack of sleep also has a clear impact on learning and processing of memory. Parents of newborns, who are typically overtired from lack of sleep, have a unique window into the effects of this. Many can tell outrageous stories of going to the grocery store still wearing their slippers or completely forgetting a conversation that occurred minutes ago! It is very similar for babies and older children. Overtired children have greater difficulty concentrating and are less alert than their well rested counterparts. Children learn by watching. Research consistently shows that overtired babies are not able to keenly observe and process what they are watching as well as rested babies. Some parents have reported a noticeable acceleration in reaching developmental milestones once their child was “sleep trained” and no longer overtired.
Because overtired children are easily bored they are less likely to play independently for as long as well rested children. Learning to play independently is an important life long skill. During this type of play children become more creative, more resourceful and develop emotional maturity. Studies conducted on infants as young as five months old found that those children who slept longer during the day had longer attention spans. The studies looking at seven to eleven year olds reported that those kids who experienced poor sleep exhibited more communication problems and intellectual deficits than those without sleep problems.
It is important that parents understand the link between sleep and the development and maintenance of learning and processing of memory. For our children, regardless how young, we need to ensure they receive adequate sleep in order to optimize their ability to learn.
Sleep also effects children’s health and education in important ways. Stay tuned for the next blog to learn more about the important impacts healthy sleep habits have on our children. Please contact me for more support on how to create healthy sleep habits for your child.