If you’ve ever experienced a toddler who missed their daily nap or a teen trying to rise early in the morning for school, you know the importance of sleep for children. As parents, we often lament our tiredness and need for more sleep. In children, however, the need for more sleep may not always be so obvious. Many children rarely admit that they are tired, and some resist going to bed at night. Despite their resistance, sleep is a crucial component of children’s needs to develop and grow well. Making sleep a priority in your home can mean more peace and better well-being for all.
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The Role of Sleep in Children’s Development
Although we’ve always known that getting enough sleep helps us and our children feel better, research into the role of sleep in children’s development offers us more specific insights into its importance. The role of sleep duration in children’s physical growth is clear. We all know the old adage that “sleep helps you grow,” and research backs this up. Although physical height is largely hereditary, there remains a link to sleep. Especially in young children, greater sleep is associated with episodic growth1 (i.e., growth spurts) and overall height in children with low Body Mass Index (BMI).1
Besides its obvious importance for physical growth, sleep is especially crucial to children’s learning. Memories, including those related to learning, consolidate during sleep.2 In fact, studies show that when children sleep longer in the days before a big exam, they actually perform better.2 Even naps in infants and toddlers can make a difference in learning and memory. In studies, toddlers who napped (for at least 30 minutes) within 4 hours of a learning session remembered more than children who did not nap3 (or napped less than 30 minutes).
Perhaps less obvious is the relationship sleep has to children’s emotional regulation capabilities. Many of us have experienced our children becoming cranky or moody as a result of not getting enough sleep. This pattern of emotional dysregulation is not just a figment of your imagination; research reveals the link. Studies show that when children or adolescents receive inadequate sleep, this can lead to less ability to regulate their emotions and behaviors.4 Researchers believe this link is due, in part, to diminished connectivity in the brain between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, suggesting less cognitive control over the emotional part of the brain3 when sleep deprived. In fact, this link between inadequate sleep and reduced emotional regulation skills is so profound that some scholars have found that the behavioral impacts can even mimic symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children.4
In adolescents, the impact of inadequate sleep is even more dramatic. Teens are at an age where they are making more decisions and choices (e.g., driving, peer pressure, substance use), but the prefrontal cortex (which controls rational thought) is not fully developed. Lack of sleep only makes it more difficult for them by impairing their memory, shortening their attention span, and delaying decision-making,5 which can have serious consequences for them. Because inadequate sleep puts teens in a position of poor decision-making and less emotional regulation, it can also put them at risk for self-harm. One of the greatest predictors of self-harm in teens is receiving less than 6 hours of sleep per night.5
Barriers to Healthy Sleep
We all understand the value of sleep for our children’s development, but actually helping them get adequate sleep can be challenging at times. Research shows this clearly. Fifty-two percent of children are not getting adequate sleep.6 That means that half of the children showing up to school, daycare, or sports practice have not gotten enough sleep the night before.
Many of the main barriers to sleep seem to have emerged with our more modern, technology-driven societal patterns. Technology can be a major distraction from sleep for many children and teens.7 Hand-held electronic devices, television, and computers never sleep and offer never-ending entertainment choices 6 to keep children awake.
Sometimes other family patterns can contribute to children not getting enough sleep as well. If families lack a consistent bedtime routine or experience family stressors like poverty or regular family discord, these can all disrupt children’s sleep habits. Even homework can sometimes be a culprit for children’s unhealthy sleep habits. If children struggle to complete homework at night or procrastinate in completing it, this can impede them from going to bed early enough to get adequate sleep.7
Fostering Healthy Sleep
In order to help children and adolescents overcome these barriers to healthy sleep, it requires us to take the lead in establishing an environment and habits to foster adequate sleep. Here are a few simple ways you can help ensure that your child gets enough sleep:
Environment: Setting up an environment that is conducive to sleep is key to helping children drift off to dreamland with ease. Experts suggest that the sleeping environment be dark, cool (65–70 degrees Fahrenheit), and quiet. Some children find white noise (like a white noise machine or fan) helpful for soothing and to block out other distracting sounds. Other children love the comfort of a favorite blanket or stuffed toy. While some children can sleep almost anywhere, others have trouble falling asleep unless these environmental conditions are set up. Learn about your child’s sleep preferences and this will aid you in establishing a setting that works best for them.
Sleep Hygiene: The idea of sleep hygiene refers to the process of establishing habits and practices that support sleep. Habits can be powerful mechanisms to support or undermine sleep. By setting up habits that foster good sleep, you can help your child get adequate sleep now and for years to come.
Finding a bedtime routine8 that works for you and your child is a key aspect of sleep hygiene. While bedtime routines do not have to be set in stone, they should follow a similar order each night and include activities that help your child wind down for sleep. Many parents foster a bedtime routine that includes activities like bathing, brushing teeth, reading stories or singing songs, and praying or deep breathing. Discover what type of activities work best for your child in promoting sleep. One crucial component of a healthy bedtime routine for children is a consistent bedtime. Encouraging sleep at about the same time each night helps children’s sleep patterns and works with their circadian rhythms. If possible, it’s also helpful to encourage children to wake up at about the same time each day.
Sleep hygiene also includes all the activities (or lack of activity) that children do before bedtime. As bedtime nears, it’s helpful to limit the amount of stimulation children experience. This could mean turning off electronics,9 limiting roughhousing or heavy exercise, and trying to encourage a calm environment. Scholars also suggest that a child’s bed should be used primarily for sleeping and not for homework or other tasks. This aspect of sleep hygiene helps a child’s brain only associate the bed with sleep. Although it can be challenging at times to set limits on activities at the end of the day, being firm and consistent will help children accept the limits. The benefits they receive from being well-rested typically far outweigh the bedtime challenges.
Making Sleep a Priority
Sleep, for both children and adults, is not a luxury but a necessity. Prioritizing sleep for children can positively influence their physical and mental well-being. By introducing healthy sleep habits at a young age, you can help them establish good-quality sleep for a lifetime.
- El Halal C.S., Nunes, M.L. (2019) Sleep and Weight-Height Development. Journal of Pediatrics (Rio J). 2019;Vol. 95, S2-S9. https://www.scielo.br/j/jped/a/J4XdzWVXTnKYLCxgzdT4n7L/?lang=en#
- Ryan, T. (2022) A Study Guide To Getting Sleep During Final Exams. Sleep Foundation, May 11, 2022. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/school-and-sleep/final-exams-and-sleep
- Jiang F. (2019) Sleep and Early Brain Development. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism. 2019, Vol.75 (suppl 1):44-54. https://www.karger.com/Article/Fulltext/508055#
- Fliesler, N. (2021) Sound Sleep, Sound Mind: The Importance of Sleep for Preteens’ Developing Brains. Answers, Boston Children’s Hospital, November 22, 2021. https://answers.childrenshospital.org/sleep-brain/
- Knight, F. L. C., & Dimitriou, D. (2019). Poor Sleep Has Negative Implications for Children With and Without ADHD, But in Different Ways. Behavioral Sleep Medicine, 17(4), 423-436. https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10069836/7/Dimitriou_Poor%20Sleep%20Has%20Negative%20Implications%20for%20Children%20With%20and%20Without%20ADHD%2C%20but%20in%20Different%20Ways_AAM.pdf
- Curley, C. (2019) Only Half of U.S. Children Get Enough Sleep: Why That’s a Serious Problem. Healthline, October 24, 2019. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/children-lack-of-sleep-health-problems#The-health-effects-of-too-little-sleep
- Gruber, R. (2022) Sleep and Children: The Impact of Lack of Sleep on Daily Life. Douglas Research Center, McGill University and the Montreal West Island IUHSSC. https://douglas.research.mcgill.ca/sleep-and-children-impact-lack-sleep-daily-life
- Pacheco, D. (2022) Children and Sleep. Sleep Foundation, March 11, 2022. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/children-and-sleep
- Suni, E. (2022) Sleep Hygiene. Sleep Foundation, March 11, 2022. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-hygiene