A sleep specialist breaks down the many ways healthy sleep habits can benefit your family, including how it affects children's brain development, physical development, behavior, mood, health, and safety.
Find the perfect summer camp that teaches your child how to speak Mandarin? Check.
Read your kids a bedtime story every night to encourage their interest in language and books? Check.
Prepare gluten-free, dairy-free, preservative-free meals for perfect nutrition? Check.
Put your kids to sleep by 7pm and stay home for naps to ensure they get enough sleep for their growth and development? Maybe this one is not so high on your priority list.
If you think sleep should just come naturally and is not an activity you can alter, think again! Based on science—and on my own experience working with hundreds of sleep-deprived infants, toddlers, and parents—the ability to fall and stay asleep are learned behaviors that take a lot of practice and patience, just like learning to read.
Here's why sleep should be a priority in your house:
Sleep is good for growing brains. Infants’ brains grow constantly, including during sleep. But to develop and function properly, growing brains require repeated cycling through all the stages of sleep for maximum benefits. New research suggests infants who get a large proportion of their sleep at night perform better at abstract reasoning tests at age 4.
It’s also key for cognitive development. Studies show children who get sufficient sleep are better problem solvers, more creative, and more flexible thinkers who achieve greater academic success. In one recent experiment, preschoolers who missed naps were less able either to learn or to recall information. Later on, studies show that high school students with high academic achievement get an average of 30 minutes more sleep per night than students with lower performance. (Some high schools are delaying the start time for school to encourage teens to sleep longer; visit startschoollater.net for more information.) And I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that parents perform better after a good night’s rest.
Memories are made during sleep. While snoozing, children's brains work overtime to file, store, and even discard what they’ve experienced and learned. Subconsciously, they transform learned material into active knowledge. This process is especially effective in babies and toddlers because all knowledge is so new.
We repair and build muscles as we sleep. For both adults and children, muscle development occurs almost exclusively during sleep. If infants and children do not sleep well at night, their muscles cannot develop as they should. Deep sleep triggers the release of a hormone that promotes normal growth. The same hormone boosts muscle mass and helps repair cells and tissues in children, teens, and adults.
Healthy sleep means happier kids. Brace yourself for the cranky mood of a toddler who has missed a nap or the fussiness of an infant who has stayed awake too long. While everyone gets a little grouchy without enough sleep, young children and babies have an especially low tolerance for too little sleep. Recently, a study from the University of Colorado found that toddlers with insufficient naps showed more anxiety and frustration, less joy and interest, and a poor understanding of how to solve problems.
Well-rested kids behave better. Anyone with a toddler who woke up a little too early, stayed up a little too late, or missed a nap knows the dreaded consequences: whines that escalate into ear-shattering screams that make you want to run away and join the circus—if that were an option. One simpler remedy is adequate sleep. In about a third of all cases, sleep-deprived behavior is often misdiagnosed as ADHD.
Lack of sleep can be a safety hazard. A Drexel University study found sleep deprivation can cause cognitive impairment similar to that of an intoxicated person. This possibility seems especially scary for injury-prone toddlers, who turn living rooms into Olympic stages and think nothing of torpedoing off the sofa when you’re looking the other way.
Healthy sleep, healthy kids. Not only does sleep energize our body and brain, it also kick-starts our immune system. In fact, adequate sleep protects children from infections that sometimes plague the rest of the family.
Less sleep puts kids at risk for obesity. Growing numbers of studies link obesity with sleep deprivation. The science points to impaired glucose control and inhibited hormone secretion as the main culprits. Another fact is that kids who get less sleep are often more sedentary and spend more time watching TV, and this lack of exercise often adds unneeded pounds.
Parents need adequate sleep to keep up. Need I say more? You just can’t function well when neither you nor your child has good sleeps habits. You owe it to yourself—and to your child —to keep your family on a healthy sleep track.
A graduate of Cornell Medical School, Rebecca Kempton, MD, became interested in the topic of sleep when her first son refused to sleep day or night—or so it seemed. After much research and conversations with other moms, Dr. Kempton honed her sleep training skills with her next two children. She then became certified as an infant and toddler sleep consultant with the Family Sleep Institute, and she now creates customized sleep solutions for families. For more information on Dr. Kempton and her services, visit babysleeppro.com or follow her on social media: facebook.com/babysleeppro or @babysleeppro on Twitter.