Course Notes: Sleep

We’re back with another Course Notes mini-series.

I recently took a Continuing Ed course called The Sensory and Sleep Connection. Although we know that sleep is an important component to our general well-being, it is frequently overlooked when it comes to our physical, emotional, and mental health. We’ve all experienced a lack of sleep (remember the newborn days?) and the feeling when we are trying to function without it; but imagine how our kids are doing, especially when they’re still growing. It made me want to investigate the occupation of sleep (yes, sleep is an occupation) and why we all need to get some good shut-eye.

Good Night, Sleep Tight

Sleep is a daily occupation necessary to function. It is a state where we are at rest, going through a series of reset cycles for our body and mind. To ensure a good night’s rest, our brain requires REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM (aka NREM) sleep.

We spend much of our slumber in NREM. This restorative phase allows our immune system to strengthen while our heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature lower. For kids, hormones responsible for growth and development release, ridding the system of any toxins and promoting cell regeneration and production.

Once we fall into deep sleep, we enter REM. Not only is this where dreams occur, but it’s also an important stage for learning and memory, allowing the brain to organize and process information from the day. As kids get older, their REM sleep decreases but their sleep cycles become longer. So by the time your child is ready to ride the school bus, one full sleep cycle is about 90 minutes.

Seriously, Get Some Sleep

Sleep is important. That’s a given. Research shows that sleep impacts:

  • Alertness and attention
  • Cognitive performance
  • Mood
  • Emotional regulation
  • Resiliency
  • Behavior
  • Learning and memory
  • Growth

Children need a lot more sleep than adults. When they receive the optimal amount of rest, they do better in school, are in better physical shape, and are less likely to have depression or anxiety.

For babies and toddlers, a healthy sleep schedule plus additional naps help improve:

  • Language skills – research shows naps as a positive influence regarding language acquisition and vocabulary growth
  • Memory consolidation – studies show that midday naps help little ones consolidate their experiences from the morning
  • Motor skills – research found that preschoolers who nap on a regular basis show stronger motor function and faster reaction time than those who don’t

On the flip side, limited sleep negatively affects our kid’s growth and function. One study found that children between the ages of 12-36 months were more likely to display behavioral issues and less likely to be happy at daycare if they had sleep difficulties at home. Poor sleep can also begin to look like other diagnoses, like ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), due to unstable mood shifts, hyper-arousal, and limited attention to tasks affecting academic performance.

To combat sleep deprivation, kids may self-remedy their fatigue with overeating (as their body is attempting to fuel itself to gain more energy), lashing out at others (because they are irritable), or wiggling/jumping around (to stay awake and focused).

How Much Sleep is Good Sleep?

AgeRecommended Hours of Sleep a Day
Newborns (0-3 months)14-17 hours (including naps)
Infants (4-11 months)12-15 hours (including naps)
Toddlers (1-2 years)11-14 hours (including naps)
Preschoolers (3-5 years)10-13 hours (including naps)
School-Age Children (6-13 years)9-11 hours (consecutive)
Teenagers (14-17 years)8-10 hours (consecutive)

Newborns require large quantities of sleep to support their rapid growth and development, but their circadian rhythm isn’t fully established. This explains why they sleep and wake up whenever and wherever they choose to (sorry, parents). Around 3 months of age, melatonin (a hormone that aids in sleep by responding to darkness) is produced, encouraging their sleep/wake cycle to become more routine as they age.

As your baby gets older, they will still require lots of sleep to help them grow but it should be more consistent as naps diminish. However, this isn’t without difficulties, like: frequent waking, wetting the bed, resisting bedtime due to FOMO, anxiousness, or just being wide-awake. Some of these situations may be temporary and will fade with parental support and understanding.

Unfortunately, the current stats indicate that babies and kids aren’t getting enough zzz’s. About 10-20% of infants and young children do not receive the recommended amount of sleep on a consistent basis. Difficulty sleeping for longer periods can become habitual if not addressed.

For school-aged children, an estimated 40-75% aren’t regularly getting enough sleep. This is worrisome as they will get increasing responsibilities and demands from school, home, and activities. More energy is needed to meet these expectations. Without sufficient rest, kids are more prone to illness, bad judgement calls, injury, or conflicts with others.

When Sleep is Disordered

Yes, getting kids to sleep can be a challenge, but how can you tell if your child may really have a problem? A study conducted with 900 child participants between 6-11 years of age found that 25-50% of those studied did not get enough sleep and of that group, at least one of them had a chronic sleep disorder. Some of the most common childhood sleep disorders are:

  • Nightmares – constant bad dreams that happen during REM sleep, often involving a scary element
  • Night/Sleep terrors – occurs during NREM and is characterized by “waking up” with a scream and bolting in an upright position, but no recollection of it the next morning
  • Sleep talking/walking – talking or walking during light sleep and with no awareness of doing it
  • Snoring – if excessive, may be caused by swollen tonsils, allergies, obesity, secondhand smoke, etc.
  • Sleep apnea disrupted breathing resulting in frequent waking throughout the night without realizing it
  • Restless leg syndrome – constant urge to move their legs that may look like fidgeting in bed

If you suspect your child may be having more than just a temporary bout with sleep, keep track of their symptoms and talk to their pediatrician.

Sleep, or lack thereof, affects everyone. If one family member can’t sleep, more than likely all members in the household can’t sleep. When my twin girls were born, the first six months weren’t just hard for me and my husband, but for my 3-year-old son as well. His attention in school was shot, our frustration tolerance was low, and the girls had trouble developing a regular sleep schedule in-sync with each other.

So, what do we do? How can we get our kids to sleep? Thursday’s post will talk strategies to improve the quality and quantity of sleep for our kids (and us).


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