Our children’s health and education are important aspects their well being. Parents care deeply about providing their children with opportunities and work hard to keep them safe and healthy. But few of us understand how sleep is a critical component to our child’s health and ability to learn.
Sleep is shown to play a role in the growth and healing of body tissue as well as central nervous system repair. Some scientists are asserting that poor sleep habits are as important as poor nutrition and lack of physical activity in the development of chronic illness and contributing to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Recent studies have shown that cumulative amounts of sleep loss can cause harmful changes in our metabolic, hormonal and immune function. This is what you find in normal aging.
Studies have shown that sleep loss creates hormonal changes that promote weight gain. Volunteers with significant sleep loss had significantly lower leptin concentrations than those who were well rested. Leptin is a hormone that signals the feeling of being satiated. Mice that lack leptin become morbidly obese. This miscue by the body can slow metabolism, increase fat deposition and over stimulate the appetite. Sleep deprived people overwhelmingly ask for candy, starchy food and salty snacks.
Modest sleep deprivation may also be associated with low-grade inflammation, which can lead to a myriad of cardiovascular problems. Volunteers studied showed elevated levels of cytokines (molecules released during inflammation and infection), which can cause this inflammation response. Continuous low-grade inflammation can damage artery walls, which can lead to the narrowing of vessels, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Increased cytokines also contribute to insulin resistance and obesity. Also, sleep deprived men showed signs of insulin resistance, which can lead to type II diabetes.
This research is based on adults and animals, but is very provocative. Certainly more research needs to be done to be conclusive and research on pediatric sleep needs to occur to draw definitive conclusions on how it might affect kids.
Behavior, cognitive functioning and health all affect children with regards to their education. If a child is behind on sleep, they are more prone to get sick, which can result in increased days missed at school. Many of the aforementioned studies found poor academic performance with school-aged children who were sleep deprived. One prominent sleep researcher suggests that sleep is vital to communications between centers of the brain. He compares the brain to a musical instrument. Instruments need to be retuned after much playing so they work properly. The brain too needs sleep in order to resynchronize, a process where nerve cells can regroup and fire at compatible frequencies. When this process is hampered children have problems integrating multiple centers of the brain. An overtired child watching television alone is not likely a problem, but this same child in a stimulating preschool classroom where they need to employ the frontal lobe and limbic emotional memory processing simultaneously are unable. This is where multiple problems are seen.
Upon reflection on how you feel and behave when you are rested it is easy to generate a list of positive attributes (happy, patient, easy going, able to focus better, willingness to work hard, etc.). The same holds true for our children. It is important to understand that children need more sleep than adults. Quality daytime naps affect nighttime sleep and the reverse is equally true. Each sleep period serves a specific function. The morning nap has more REM sleep, which is associated with brain maturation and growth. Afternoon naps have more nonREM sleep which is associated with psychological and physical restoration. Thus, it is important for parents to understand how to achieve and maintain healthy sleep habits. Please contact me for more support on how to create healthy sleep habits for your child.