What Is the Importance of Sleep in Early Childhood Development?

Let’s explore the importance of sleep in your child’s development early on.

By Sheryl Grassie

Ever wonder why children sleep so much? About 40% of childhood is spent sleeping, but that is not unused time. Some very important processes take place during sleep that are crucial to healthy growth.

The field of child development has exploded in the last century. We are discovering more and more about what children need to be healthy. Dr. Spock, whose life spanned almost the entire 20th century, pioneered insights into childcare that highlighted the need for loving care, including lots of touch to stimulate healthy development.

In addition, the field of nutrition has helped us understand what foods are necessary for children to have a healthy body and mind. The third and lesser studied component of childhood health is sleep. Getting enough sleep is now thought to be as essential, if not more so, than the two other pillars.

The Importance of Sleep

Why is sleep so crucial to development? Sleep is described as a “power source,” and it is a kind of fuel for the brain. In general, sleep promotes growth and physical health, good cognitive function, and mood stabilization.

Sleep Affects Growth

You may have heard someone say that children only grow when they are sleeping. This is not entirely true, but it is true that growth hormone is produced while sleeping. It is also true that a significant lack of sleep can stunt growth. Growth also refers to the development of bones, organs, and tissues, not just the height of a child. Children need enough sleep to ensure enough growth hormone for adequate development of all aspects of their growing body.

Sleep Affects Physical Health

Children who get enough sleep get fewer colds and flus, have less illnesses in general, and are at a lower risk of developing conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Sleep promotes immune function that helps the body to fight off infection, regulates immune response to pathogens, and decreases susceptibility to viruses. Sleep promotes better balance which results in less falls, sprains, and injuries.

Sleep also affects weight. More and more studies are correlating the two, and lack of sleep is directly connected to obesity. Less than the needed amount of sleep can create cravings for extra carbohydrates, as well as stimulate hormones that affect weight. Lack of sleep can create a vicious cycle of weight gain and comorbid conditions, like sleep apnea or snoring, that feed off each other and compromise health.

Sleep Affects weight cycle

Sleep Affects Cognitive Function

Sleep increases brain power and is a huge determinant in your child’s level of cognitive functioning. An adequate amount of good quality sleep can ensure a good attention span, increase learning ability, support better memory, and is equated to higher IQ’s. If you want your children to do better in school, increase their sleep.

The research further correlates lack of sleep to various learning disabilities, behavior problems, and ADHD symptoms. Some prominent disabilities like autism and Down syndrome have associated sleep disorders as well.

Sleep Affects Mood

All parents know how crabby and unruly a child can get when they are overtired and lacking sleep. What you may not realize is that a lack of sleep can cause a destabilization of emotions that can make for a pervasively glum child, a child whose emotions run to extremes, or a child who frequently becomes out-of-control. As research continues, there is more evidence that sleep dysregulates hormones which affect mood.

Developing Healthy Sleep Habits

We know that love, touch, and caring for our children is essential. We know they need a balanced diet with at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. But do most parents know how much sleep their child needs? Or how to help them get it?

Letting children self-regulate when it comes to sleep can have some disastrous consequences. Just like with food, parents may need to override choices that children make in order to keep them developing in a healthy way. If left to their own devices, they might eat only sugar and simple carbohydrates; similarly with sleep, they might fall asleep to the television or stay up way later than is good for them.

Luckily, parents have the authority to guide children towards better choices. You probably know how to do this with food, but what about sleep? How can you help your child have a sleep routine that supports their development? Let’s explore that, along with a better understanding of exactly how much sleep they need at different stages.

Birth to 3 Months

Newborns sleep around the clock and are regulated by their need to eat, their need to be changed, by the room temperature, and by a need for comfort. Their sleep patterns are irregular due to their lack of development. In these early months, while they are sleeping, their brains are working to regulate their circadian rhythms, which control their sleep-awake cycles. Experts recommend that you expose them to daylight early in the day to help with this process.

Then at nap times or bedtime, put them to bed awake, on their backs, and with no blankets or stuffed animals in the crib. This way they can learn to fall asleep on their own and are free from any suffocating hazards while sleeping. Further, engage in a predictable bedtime routine, something you can replicate nightly and your child can learn to count on.

You can work towards more sleep overnight by encouraging awake time during the day: put them on their tummies with toys, talk and sing to them, and engage them in activities and play. Normal sleep during this period is between 12 and 18 hours per day. If your child seems crabby, or is getting sick on a regular basis, then lean towards more sleep.

4 to 11 Months

After the first few months their pattern of sleep will start to change. Their overnight sleep will lengthen, and their naps may become shorter or less frequent. It is still common that they nap between 1 and 4 times a day, anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours.

By 6 months of age, they are working on self-soothing where they are able to comfort themselves and don’t need mom and dad all the time. By 9 months, between 70-80% will sleep through the night. Continue putting them to bed on their backs, and encourage independent sleeping. Also, continue with a sleep routine and pay attention to the sleep environment. The room should be dark, quiet, and a comfortable temperature around 70 degrees. Daily sleep should average between 12 and 15 hours.

1 to 2 Years

Your child’s sleep routine will continue to change with far fewer naps and better overnight sleep. By 1.5 years, they should be down to one nap daily. They no longer need to sleep on their backs as their mobility keeps them safe. This is a good time to introduce a security object like a blanket or stuffed animal and to shore up that bedtime routine.

Daylight is still very important for regulating sleep hormones, and the earlier in the day the better. Try to keep naps early in the afternoon, so there are appropriately tired at bedtime. Needed sleep during this stage is between 11 and 14 hours per day.

3 to 5 Years

During these years, sleep decreases by at least an hour. Naps can become intermittent, and for most children, they will fall away completely by age 5. This is a period where there can be an increase in nighttime fears, bad dreams, and sleepwalking. The child’s imagination is in a phase of rapid development that is noticeable during the day but also affects their sleep. Sleep duration is between 10 and 13 hours daily.

6 to 13 Years

For most children, naps are a thing of the past in the elementary years, and they rely on one long overnight sleep. Problems and disorders associated with sleep can commonly develop during these years and may need addressing, most will not go away on their own.

Trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, and anxiety related to sleep can lead to learning problems, cognitive issues, mood disorders, and ADHD. Electronics play a larger role in their lives at this age and need to be monitored as they can have an effect on sleep. Practice good sleep hygiene and keep all electronics out of the bedroom and no screens for at least 2 hours before bedtime. Also, monitor any caffeine intake, especially later in the day. Sleep needed is 9 to 11 hours.

Quick Sleep Guide

Child’s Age Amount of Sleep
Birth to 3 months 12 to 18 hours
4 to 11 months 12 to 15 hours
1 to 2 years 11 to 14 hours
3 to 5 years 10 to 13 hours
6 to 13 years 9 to 11 hours

Research on Childhood Sleep

Sleep research is a newer field, and more research is badly needed as the outcomes of studies affect policies and recommendations. Sleep research in general has been limited to the effects of sleep deprivation, and studies are needed that address long-term outcomes around sleep and the effects of different sleep patterns on different aspects of development. In the research that has been done, we see significant findings related to several things. Highlights include

  • Short sleep duration or sleep deprivation, meaning less than the recommended minimum amount of sleep on a daily basis during the first 3 years of life has long term effects and is linked to hyperactivity, impulsivity, and lower cognitive functioning. Just 1 hour less a night than needed for four consecutive nights can have dramatic effects on functioning.
  • Age 2.5 is a significant age for the long-term effects of sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep at this particular juncture is more impactful than at other ages. It may be that specific brain development is occurring at this age and for optimal development enough sleep must occur during this time.

Summary

Sleep plays a crucial role in childhood development. There are many processes, including the secretion of growth hormone, that happen during sleep. Enough sleep is tied to physical health, and a lack can cause lower immune function, heart disease, diabetes, and weight gain. It is also tied to cognitive functioning, and a lack can cause behavior problems, learning disabilities, ADHD, and a lower IQ.

Figure out the amount of sleep your child needs, and help them with good sleep hygiene practices. Make sure they get plenty of daylight, keep a consistent bedtime routine, eliminate electronics from the room where they sleep and in the hours before bed, and monitor caffeine. Supporting good sleep is as important as loving care and good nutrition in helping your child to optimize their development.


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