From coaxing toddlers into bed to teens repeatedly pressing the snooze button, sleep problems in childhood are common. In fact, nearly a third of children have some type of sleep difficulty. However, kids are so resilient that it can be easy to underestimate how detrimental sleep deprivation in children may be. Research is now showing why sleep is so important for children. Not only can sleep deprivation in children cause immediate problems, but it can also cause future health issues as well. Knowing how sleep deprivation in children affects their well-being, and how to address it, is something every parent should know.
Why Is Sleep Important for Children?
When it comes to sleep, we all feel better after a good night’s rest. Our minds are more alert, we function better, and we have more energy. But the benefits of sleep extend well beyond these generalities. This is particularly true for children. Not only is sleep critical for recharging the mind and body, but for kids, sleep plays a major role in growth and development. This is one reason why sleep deprivation in children is a concern.
Did you know growth hormone is primarily released in the body during deep sleep? This helps explain why infants and toddlers sleep so much more than older children and adults. Likewise, avoiding sleep deprivation in children boosts their immune system, reduces stress, improves memory formation, and focuses attention. All of these are critically important for children who are growing and developing.
How Much Sleep Is Enough?
Like adults, the range for normal amounts of sleep can vary with each child. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics has provided some guidelines for parents to help prevent sleep deprivation in children. The following can be used as a rough estimate of sleep needs in kids.
Sleep Deprivation and Children
Increasingly, studies are showing that sleep deprivation in children can have both immediate and long-lasting effects. From attention and behavior to eating habits and weight, sleep deprivation in children is now linked to a number of health concerns.
None of us are at our best when we don’t enough sleep. Kids are no different. When sleep deprivation in children occurs, children become less attentive, unable to focus, and perform less well in school. In fact, sleep deprivation in children can mimic Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder because of the effects on attention. The last thing needed is to be treated for this condition when the real problem is a lack of sleep.
If you’ve ever been around a child who is sleepy, you know the typical behaviors. They are moody, irritable, impulsive, and even hyperactive just before the “crash.” In essence, sleep deprivation in children causes the same behaviors over a longer period of time. Research now shows these behavioral problems can actually persist and cause ongoing difficulties later in childhood as well.
Everyone’s immune system, including children’s, works better with adequate sleep. Good sleep is therefore naturally important in preventing colds, flu, and other infections. But did you know sleep deprivation in children also triggers immune system stress that can lead to heart problems later? When sleep is poor in quality or quantity, stress hormones tend to be released in higher amounts. In time, this can lead to elevations in blood pressure and even heart issues years later.
Sleep deprivation in children increases the risk of obesity. Studies show that poor sleep in children is linked to increased cravings for high-calorie foods and higher obesity rates. Leptin, a hormone released after eating to suppress hunger, may be less effective when sleep deprivation in children exists. Therefore, healthy sleep helps support healthy eating and weight in children.
Best Practices to Avoid Sleep Deprivation in Children
Naturally, some children sleep less well than others, and this can pose challenges for parents. But in most cases, sleep deprivation in children can be avoided with good sleep hygiene practices. These are some key strategies you should consider in helping your child get the best night’s sleep possible.
- Keep a Sleep Diary. Data is always helpful. Track bedtimes, wake times, and specific problems to help you know where a problem might be.
- Maintain a Structured Sleep Schedule. Bedtimes and wake times should be consistent to promote structure and good sleep patterns.
- Make Time for “Winddown.” Avoid stimulating activities an hour before bedtime. Reading a book and taking a warm bath may be great options during winddown time.
- Promote Self-Soothing. Especially for younger children, teaching them to be comfortable alone can promote better rest and sleep.
- Connect the Bed with Sleep Only. Watching television, computer games, and other activities in bed creates bad associations that can reduce the ability to fall and stay asleep.
- Create a Good Environment for Sleep. Make sure the bedroom and bed are comfortable and conducive to a good night’s sleep.
If All Else Fails…Get Help
In most cases of sleep deprivation in children, the above measures will take care of any issues. But if poor sleep persists, then professional help may be needed. Based on the most recent research on sleep deprivation in children, seeking help sooner rather than later is recommended. In doing so, you will give your child the best opportunity to be healthy and well moving forward.
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