By Liberty Mahon, MS of Children’s Therapy Services Sleep Support
In Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, Dr. Marc Weissbluth, MD explains that “Every night and at every nap, sleep recharges the brain’s battery.” Although the body is physically resting during sleep, the brain is quite active. In fact, sleep is when the brain is processing new information, storing new memories and making new connections. According to Zero to Three, “A newborn’s brain is about 25% of its approximate adult weight. But by age 3, it has grown dramatically by producing billions of cells and hundreds of trillions of connections, or synapses, between these cells.” From birth on, a baby is constantly receiving, processing and storing new information about his world. A child’s brain needs to make connections in order to process everything new that he hears, sees, smells, tastes, touches and experiences. This mentally and physically exhausting work is why newborns sleep more than they are awake and why young children need so much more sleep than adults. According to the National Sleep Foundation, infants need 15-18 hours of sleep per day. Toddlers continue to need a fair amount of sleep (12-14 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period). Not only does a child need to get an adequate number of hours of sleep, it is best if the child’s sleep is in sync with her biological rhythms in environment that promotes quality, restorative sleep. The quantity and quality of sleep are key elements to having restorative sleep to promote healthy development.
Here’s the problem:
As a society, American adults do not value sleep. To many adults sleep is viewed as a luxury or as a waste of time. According to a 2014 Poll by the National Sleep Foundation, Americans are busier and more connected than ever. In fact, American adults are sleeping less since 1942 according to a Gallup poll conducted in 2013. Although 8-9 hours of sleep are recommended for adults, 40% of American adults get less than 7 hours of sleep. If adults are not making enough time to get adequate sleep for themselves, how can they make enough time for their children to get the numerous hours of sleep each day? When children do not receive healthy, restorative sleep daily, sleep difficulties arise including night waking , early rising, night terror and difficulty falling asleep.
When parents learn about the number of naps, hours of night time sleep and sleep schedule necessary to combat sleep deprivation in their family, I often hear, “How can I have a life?” Frequently, naptimes tend to fall at the same time as family gatherings and bedtimes are needed just as the dinner party is getting started. Baby’s recommended bedtime is often the same time as the time parents come home from work. In addition, sleeping on the go, such as in the car, is not conducive to healthy sleep habits. Providing a consistent time and space to sleep can be very disruptive and inconvenient to a busy family that needs to work, run errands and get other children to after school activities. We want it all – the ability to work, take care of life, attend fun events and parties and have a child that sleeps well. Although this is ideal, it is impossible to have it all. As a family you must decide what is most important.
What’s a parent to do?
1. Educate yourself on the importance of sleep. One of the first things you worry about as a new parent is if your baby will be a good sleeper. You hear the horror stories of other people’s babies that woke up all night, every night and fear that you may never get a good night of sleep again. But why do you want your child to sleep in the first place? Most of us want our baby to sleep so that we feel rested the next day. It’s true, sleep deprivation does affect a person’s alertness, but sleep affects us, especially young children in many more ways than this.
- Learning and Memory: Organizational, planning, memory, multitasking, problem solving, reading and math skills are all affected by the quality of a person’s sleep. Sleep deprivation can cause forgetfulness and confusion. Research has shown that children who sleep less have lower grades, lower IQ scores and poorer reading abilities, especially children experiencing sleep difficulties over long periods of time.
- Speech and Language: Sleep deprivation impairs the ability to comprehend language, formulate sentences and recall words.
- Motor coordination: A person that is sleep deprived can have decreased hand-eye coordination, be off balance, clumsy, can have a slower reaction time and be more accident prone. Infants are often slower to achieve their motor milestones.
- Mood and Social-Emotional Well Being: Sleep deprivation can cause hyperactivity, irritability, greater difficulty coping and self-regulating, and increased anxiety. In 2013, a Vanderbilt study found that after improving sleep habits of children with autism spectrum disorders, these children experienced less anxiety, increased attention and decreased repetitive behaviors.
- Health: Poor sleep decreases the body’s ability to fight off infection. Studies have also linked poor sleep with weight gain.
Now that you know that keeping your baby up late at night to play with her or offering your child naps on- the-go instead of in a dark, quiet place is likely interfering with her development, will you continue to do so? If you begin to think of sleep as essential as food for your child’s growth and development instead of just something that the body does to rest, then you may begin to value it and protect it. Would you ever think of offering your child sweet treats as meals regularly to refuel his body? If not, then why offer him “junk sleep” daily to recharge his brain?
2. Make a Commitment: It is not an easy task to establish and maintain healthy sleep habits. Develop a plan on your own using books as a guide, or hire a professional, such as a certified sleep consultant to help you create a plan. Whatever you choose as a plan, you need to stick to it in order to achieve your goals. Be sure that all members of the household are committed to making this change. Having a consistent approach is essential. This process can take several weeks to establish- be patient.
3. Get creative: In order to work around your child’s sleep schedule and their need for sleep, you will have to get creative with fitting in other parts of your “life.” Plan to run errand between naps. Pack a picnic lunch for the park so you can stay later before a nap. Bring two cars to a party so some of the family can go on time and the adult with the sleeping child can arrive later after the nap. Ask childcare provider’s to put your child in pajamas or feed him dinner so you can have some playtime after work without keeping him up too late. Once you have well established, healthy sleep habits, you will be able to stray from the schedule occasionally for special occasions or holidays. If you keep your child rested, your special times together will be more enjoyable for everyone.
4. Commend Yourself: By understanding and providing healthy sleep for your child, you are giving your child the gift of sleep and allowing her to be her best. This gift will last a lifetime and will benefit the entire family.
Bergin, Christi A, and David A. Bergin. “Sleep: The E-ZZZ Intervention.” Educational Leadership. Dec. 2009. Web. 14 Oct. 2014. <http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/dec09/vol67/num04/Sleep@_The_E-ZZZ_Intervention.aspx>.
Boerner, Craig. “Sleep education helps families of children with autism.” Vanderbilt University. 12 Web. 1 Sept. 2013. <http://news.vanderbilt.edu/2013/09/sleep-education-helps-families-of-children-with-autism/>.
“Brain Development.” Zero to Three. Web. 14 Oct. 2014. <http://www.zerotothree.org/child-development/brain-development/>.
“In U.S., 40% Get Less Than Recommended Amount of Sleep.” Gallup Well Being. 19 Dec. 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2014. <http://www.gallup.com/poll/166553/less-recommended-amount-sleep.aspx>.
“Obesity and Sleep.” National Sleep Foundation. Web. 14 Oct. 2014. <http://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/obesity-and-sleep>.
“Sleep in America Poll 2014:Sleep in the Modern Family .” National Sleep Foundation. Web. 14 Oct. 2014. <sleepfoundation.org/sleep-polls-data/sleep-in-america-poll/2014-sleep-in-the-modern-family/>.
Weissbluth, Marc. Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Children. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2003. Print.
Liberty Mahon, MS is a certified Special Education teacher and a certified Infant and Child Sleep Consultant trained through the Family Sleep Institute. She has worked with young children in the Greater Danbury area for the past 13 years.She is a co-creator of the Children’s Therapy Services Sleep Support Program. CTS Sleep Support offers a variety of consultation packages including in-person, phone, Skype/Face Time and e-mail consultations. Her services include a personalized plan and her support as she helps you to help your child learn to sleep better. Please go to www.childrenssleepsupport.com for more information or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow Children’s Therapy Sleep Support Program on Facebook.