I am incredibly passionate about sleep for everybody, but especially children and that is why I am thrilled to be able to do my job. The benefits of sleep are incredibly long term and far reaching, not just the obvious day to day grumpiness we may see in our children if they have not slept well!
Although a blog post is nowhere near long enough to set out all the amazing benefits of sleep I plan to summarise the major ones. If you are inspired and want to know more there are a number of great books on the market that do this in much more detail (I particularly recommend Adriana Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution or Dr Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep), but in this post I want to set out the basics.
You might be surprised to learn that sleep is still a bit of a mystery, a little like the ocean. We know some information but there is still a huge amount we do not know and it is a relatively ‘new’ area of research. From an evolutionary perspective, the fact that we fall into a near unconscious state for a third of our day, every day (a state that would have left our early ancestors incredibly vulnerable) doesn’t seem to make much sense but we know sleep plays a vital role in relation to our health and well-being.
Learning and memory
We all recognise how difficult it is to focus on information when we haven’t slept enough but absorbing information is only part of this. Learning and memory are divided into three functions: acquisition, consolidation and recall. Essentially, you need to receive the information, then you need to stabilise the memory of it, and finally, you need to be able to access and recall it.
Acquisition and recall only take place while you’re awake, but consolidation “takes place during sleep through the strengthening of the neural connections that form our memories. The overall evidence suggests that adequate sleep each day is very important for learning and memory.”1
Without adequate sleep you might manage to acquire information, but it won’t be properly stored in your brain, and you’ll find yourself unable to remember it when you try to access it later on. Think of your brain as a computer; in the right type of sleep it pushes the save button on what we learn that day, which is why it’s so vital for children’s development and education. If your little one cannot recall what they practiced the day before they may not develop as quickly as those who get the right type and amount of sleep
In a 2017 study on Panorama, school age children slept for 1 hour more per night for a week and the results of the study showed:
• Their problem-solving ability increased by 66%
• The results of their memory test increased by 57%
• Their attention and focus increased by 44%
You can see, therefore, that in relation to learning and trying to absorb new information, it’s hard to overstate the importance of consolidated sleep.
Relationships and emotional well-being
Not getting enough sleep can also have a negative impact on children’s relationships with their parents. I’ve worked with a number of parents who’ve said they even started to feel resentful of their toddlers and older children as they had no time with their partners or alone on an evening. This can then have a knock-on effect on their relationships with their partners – not spending time together, sleeping in separate beds and we all know lack of sleep can make us more irritable, further exacerbating the situation.
Lack of sleep can also impact a child’s relationships with their siblings and peers. They may experience resentment and jealousy from brothers and sisters who see them as the cause of their grumpy parents. And if a toddler or older child is grumpy and not as emotionally resilient as those who have had good sleep, they may also find it trickier to make friends.
When we don’t get enough sleep, we’re likely to get short-tempered and irritable, which just makes everything worse. A study from the University of Pennsylvania showed that subjects who experienced even partial sleep deprivation reported feelings of stress, anger, sadness, and mental exhaustion. 2
This probably isn’t news to you. We’re all aware of the negative emotions we can experience when we’re running on too little sleep, but why? Again, it’s a bit of a mystery, but some researchers have suggested that sleep deprivation stimulates activity in the amygdala. That’s the little almond-shaped part of the brain that’s responsible for feelings of, among other things, anger and fear. These amped-up feelings can lead to an overall sense of stress and hostility towards others.
Health and physical well-being
So we can see how getting enough sleep is essential to learning and emotional well-being, but what about the more tangible benefits? Dr Matthew Walker (in his book) states that he had thought good nutrition, exercise and sleep were the three foundations of health. Following all the research he did for his book he now believes that sleep is the foundation, without which we cannot build solid good health.
“Sleep services all aspects of our body in one way or another: molecular, energy balance, as well as intellectual function, alertness and mood,” says Dr. Merrill Mitler, a sleep expert and neuroscientist at the American National Institutes of Health. “Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies,”
People who regularly get between 7-9 hours of sleep experience significantly lower rates of obesity, high blood pressure, stroke, infections, depression, diabetes, inflammation, hypertension, heart disease, heart attacks, and heart failure. They also report better performance at work, and take fewer sick days than people who typically sleep less than 7 hours a night. 3
Lack of sleep is one of the biggest causes of obesity in children, it is almost always linked to mental health difficulties in adolescence and can also lead to some cancers in adulthood. It also impairs children’s immune systems so that they are more susceptible to illness and virus’ (which can then have an impact on school if they need time off).
It’s so detrimental to your health that even a few hours less sleep a night, for just a few days, will have a visible impact on your skin. In 2016, Dr Guy Meadows carried out a study ‘The Impact of Sleep on Skin’ (involving Jodi Kidd) and found that for adults, 5 nights of 25% less sleep (6hrs not 8hrs) leads to:
• Double the amount of fine lines and wrinkles
• 75% more brown spots in the form of dark circles and the effects would worsen if lack of sleep continued
The foundations of growth and development
So there’s no question that sleep is an essential part of a healthy, happy lifestyle and this does not need to change when you have a baby.
There’s a commonly held belief that new parents should expect to sacrifice their sleep for at least a few years, and that ‘being exhausted’ is simply part and parcel of having children. In my experience this is one of the most problematic myths about parenthood.
The fact is, your baby needs sleep even more than you do. Your little one’s body may look calm while they sleep, but behind the scenes there’s a lot of vital work going on. Growth hormones are being secreted to help your little one gain weight and grow, cytokines are being produced to fight off infections and produce antibodies, and many other intricate systems are at work laying the foundations for growth and development. They will continue to do so throughout adolescence, too, provided they’re given the opportunity.
It simply isn’t the case that ‘babies just don’t sleep well’. Your little one can be taught the skills they need to settle and sleep well, helping them to enjoy the many important benefits of sleep – and allowing them to establish a healthy sleep routine for the rest of their lives. Guiding little ones towards great sleep habits really is the best skill you can teach your children and something which will give them the best chance to reach their full potential as they get older.
As always, if you’re experiencing any problems with your little ones sleep, please do get in touch for a free 15 minute chat – We would love to help!
1 Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, retrieved from healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/ healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep/learning-memory, December 18, 2007
2 Sleep. 1997 Apr;20(4):267-77. Cumulative sleepiness, mood disturbance, and psychomotor vigilance performance decrements during a week of sleep restricted to 4-5 hours per night. Dinges DF1, Pack F, Williams K, Gillen KA, Powell JW, Ott GE, Aptowicz C, Pack AI.
3 National Sleep Foundation, 2008 Sleep in America Poll, Summary of Findings retrieved from sleepfoundation.org/sites/default/files/2008%20POLL%20SOF.PDF