Why is sleep especially important for little ones?


Watching your child sleep is often a moment of immense gratitude. Looking at their peaceful face and listening to their slow breathing reminds you of why you love being a parent. It may also have something to do with the fact you can take a breath from the (sometimes) chaos when they’re awake. For the worn-out parent seeing your little one hit snooze for 12 hours can make you a wee bit jealous. However, don’t be fooled, their bodies and minds are still working full steam ahead. Their brain’s neural pathways are getting stronger, their bodies are growing and they are developing strong immunity all at the same time.

There’s no doubt the benefits of getting enough sleep for both young and old are endless. So why exactly do our little ones sleep so much and why is this so important?

Learning

When young ones are well-rested, they’re more alert, behave better, and are more likely to be learning from the world around them. Those who don’t get enough sleep will have trouble functioning and may miss vital learning during the day. They won’t just be difficult on the surface, but their mental growth will suffer too.

While you may be envious watching your little one sleep – they’re doing more work than you think! Their brains are at such a rapid stage of development, particularly between the ages 1-5. Most of their brain development is completed in this age bracket, so they don’t just switch off when they go to bed. Sleep is where vital neural pathways between the left and right hemisphere are strengthened, both of which will continue to develop throughout their life.

At the younger stages of their lives, every day is exciting and novel. They’ll meet new people for the first time, see new words they’ve never seen before or spot a new type of dog that they didn’t realize existed. They have been taking in a huge amount of information throughout the day so they need more rest time to process it. Their senses are functioning at such a high level throughout the day, it’s no wonder they need so many hours to recover.

Physical growth

There is evidence to suggest that crucial physical growth occurs overnight. This doesn’t mean a good night’s sleep will have your child waking up 6ft tall, but regular good sleep allows the growth hormones to flourish. One study completed in Italy found that children who were lacking in this growth hormone were sleeping less deeply than those who had sufficient levels. This shows not only is enough sleep important but getting a deep sleep too.

Risk of emotional disorders

An NIH-funded study found that there was a link between recurring poor sleep and developing emotional disorders later in life. The study found that good sleep was crucial for children to pick up things like self-monitoring, emotion, and others’ nonverbal cues. They are at an age where their brain is rapidly growing and learning, so intervention now could help avoid developing emotional disorders later down the track. Good sleep is just one of the ways to ensure healthy brain development.

Weight

We’ve all had a bad night’s sleep, only to be fueled with sugar or caffeine cravings the next day. When we’re tired we rely on anything to give us more energy and this is often food. The same goes for kids, when they don’t get a good sleep they’ll try to consume more sugary foods or the ones that give them an immediate energy boost. Inevitably, these aren’t usually the healthiest choices.

Studies have also shown a lack of sleep affects the hormone leptin. Leptin is the hormone that tells us we’ve eaten enough to be satisfied. So when kids regularly don’t get enough sleep this hormone is affected, potentially resulting in weight gain (Dorit Koren, M.D).

It is shown that when children get enough sleep they can respond to insulin levels better. Insulin is needed to help turn the glucose in your body to energy – without it, glucose becomes hard to process. A high BMI, higher insulin resistance, and high glucose levels are a recipe for type II diabetes. Of course, sleep isn’t the only factor contributing, but it certainly can help reduce the risk.

Stronger immunity

When the littles ones are out cold, it allows their bodies to produce cells called cytokines. These allow the body to overcome illness and infections better. There have been studies that show those who get less sleep (under 7 hours) are around three times more likely to develop a cold than those who get enough sleep. A lack of sleep means that insufficient cytokine cells are produced, leaving them more vulnerable to sickness.

ADHD symptoms & sleep

It’s common knowledge that lack of sleep causes kids to be unfocussed and inattentive, but did you know these are symptoms of ADHD? There are two types of ADHD inattentive and hyperactive. The symptoms of inattentive ADHD often present themselves similarly to those traits shown when your child doesn’t get enough sleep. These include troubles focusing, distracted, difficulty learning, or easily confused. ADHD like symptoms can often lead to an incorrect diagnosis, which isn’t helpful for anyone. It’s important to rule out sleep deprivation before making the diagnosis of ADHD. Equally, if you have ruled this out entirely, don’t overlook the fact they could have ADHD and seek professional advice.

Better behavior

This one is perhaps obvious, but getting enough sleep results in better behavior. Groggy and tired kids tend to take it out on others including their peers and parents. Getting enough sleep will reduce the risk of this happening and a child getting labeled ‘naughty’ at school. Behaving better during the day is not only good for you but will help your child not get stuck as being the ‘naughty’ kid.

While it’s important to understand exactly why kids need to be getting enough sleep – don’t freak yourself out! A few nights of bad sleep won’t stunt their growth or mean they’ll develop an emotional disorder. The point is to realize how important sleep is for little ones and why they’re allowed to lie in bed for much longer than you. Do your best to promote good sleep and make sure they’re getting enough hours snoozing.

 

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