Why is sleep so important for children?

There’s a lot more to sleep than avoiding tiredness, especially when it comes to our kids

It’s no secret that sleep is important. We’re all familiar with the exhaustion that hits when we don’t get enough sleep the night before. But while getting ample sleep is important for absolutely everybody, it’s particularly vital when it comes to our children.

Recent research has shown that sleep deprivation can have a swift and significant impact on child development. In fact, Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia found that the repercussions of sleep deprivation are visible in children after only 4 nights of 1 fewer hour of sleep per night.

But why is sleep so important for our little ones? We’re going to explain. These are the main benefits that sleep has for children.

Sleep benefits their heart health

Data shows that sleep can protect children from vascular damage as a result of circulating stress hormones and damage to cholesterol.

Sleep specialist and researcher Jeffrey Durmer, M.D., Ph.D., states that “children with sleep disorders have excessive brain arousal during sleep, which can trigger the fight-or-flight response hundreds of times each night. Their blood glucose and cortisol remain elevated at night. Both are linked to higher levels of diabetes, obesity, and even heart disease.”

Sleep helps them grow

Sleep is essential for healthy growth in children, as growth hormones are primarily secreted during deep sleep. As such, babies tend to spend about 50% of their time in deep sleep, during which time their bodies grow and evolve.

Italian researchers carried out a study on children with deficient levels of growth hormones, and found that, on average, they sleep less than other children.

Sleep fights germs

When we sleep, we produce cytokines. These are proteins which the body uses to fight infection, stress and illness. They can also make us feel sleepy, which is why we feel so exhausted when we have a cold or flu — our brains are telling us to rest.

Too little sleep can impact the number of cytokines available, and research shows that adults who sleep 7 hours or less per night are up to 3 times more likely to develop a cold than those who sleep 8 or more. Data on young children is limited, but studies on teenagers show that longer nightly sleeps reduced the number of reported bouts of illness.

Sleep affects their weight

When we feel full after eating, our bodies produce the hormone leptin, and this signals us to stop eating. However, research shows that sleep deprivation can inhibit our production of leptin, meaning children who are tired are more likely to just keep eating.

Our eating habits (and the eating habits of our children) are also impacted by a lack of sleep, as children, like adults, tend to crave foods with higher fat and carb values when they’re tired. Sleep-deprived children are also more likely to move around less, meaning they burn fewer calories.

Paediatric endocrinologist and sleep research at the University of Chicago, Dorit Koren, M.D., puts it simply, saying: “Over time, kids who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to be obese.”

Sleep promotes learning

Sleep doesn’t just impact our kids’ bodies, it affects their minds too. Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center found that newborn babies are actually capable of learning in their sleep. They were played soft music and then given a gentle puff of air to their eyelids. After 20 minutes, the newborns were already anticipating the air by squinting when the music played.

Another study by the University of Massachusetts Amherst taught 40 nursery-aged children a game called memory. One week, the kids took a nap averaging 77 minutes. The next week, they didn’t take a nap. When they stayed awake the children forgot, on average, 15% of what they had learned, but they retained everything after napping.

Ensuring your kids get enough sleep every night may not be easy, with many parents working long hours and a host of tempting electronics to hand, but it’s clear that making the effort is vital. A healthy night’s sleep is a key step to a healthy, happy child.

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