Getting your kid to bed early has more benefits than just a few hours of quiet time at night. New research explains how vitamin ZZZ may help children fight obesity, avoid colds, and succeed in school.
There is an urgent public-health mission to help American kids (not to mention their chronically exhausted mothers and fathers) get more sleep. Parents have always felt that sleep directly affects a child’s mood, and most would agree it has a big impact on learning and behavior. But pediatric researchers’ latest findings suggest that sleep is also essential to good health. When kids get the sleep they need, they may have a lower risk of becoming overweight as well as fewer learning problems and attention issues. Sleep is as important as nutrition and exercise.
You may realize that your child could use more shut-eye. However, it can be very difficult to recognize all the ways that after-school and evening activities sabotage bedtime, and the damaging effects of allowing electronics into your kid’s bedroom can have on sleep.
Sleep promotes growth
You’ve probably had mornings where you’ve sworn your baby got bigger overnight, and you’d be right. Mother Nature seems to have protected babies by making sure they spend about 50 percent of their time in this deep sleep, and it is considered to be essential for adequate growth
Sleep affects weight
There’s increasing evidence that getting too little sleep causes kids to become overweight, starting in infancy. One study from Penn State Children’s Hospital has shown that when parents are coached on the difference between hunger and other distress cues and begin to soothe without feeding — using such techniques as swaddling and swinging — babies are more likely to be sound sleepers, and less likely to be overweight. That’s key because the sleep-weight connection seems to snowball. Over time, kids who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to be obese,” says Dorit Koren, M.D., a pediatric endocrinologist and sleep researcher at the University of Chicago. Worn-out kids also eat differently than those who are well rested. “Research has shown that children, like adults, crave higher-fat or higher-carb foods when they’re tired,” Dr. Koren says. “Tired children also tend to be more sedentary, so they burn fewer calories.”
Sleep helps beat germs
During sleep, children produce proteins which the body relies on to fight infection, illness, and stress. (Besides battling illness, they also make us sleepy, which explains why having the flu or a cold feels so exhausting. It forces us to rest, which further aids the body’s ability to heal.) While there’s little data on young children, studies of teens have found that reported bouts of illness declined with longer nightly sleep.
Sleep increases attention span
Children who consistently sleep fewer than ten hours a night before age 3 are three times more likely to have hyperactivity and impulsivity problems by age 6. But the symptoms of sleep-deprivation and ADHD, including impulsivity and distractibility, mirror each other. In other words, tired kids can be impulsive and distracted even though they don’t have ADHD. No one knows how many kids are misdiagnosed with the condition, but ruling out sleep issues is an important part of the diagnosis. For school-age kids, research has shown that adding as little as 27 minutes of extra sleep per night makes it easier for them to manage their moods and impulses so they can focus on schoolwork. Kids with ADHD also seem to be more vulnerable to the effects of too little sleep.
Sleep boosts learning
Sleep aids learning in kids of all ages, and education experts are finding that naps have a particular magic. Making sure families get enough sleep isn’t easy, especially with parents working longer hours, more elaborate after-school activities, bedrooms full of cool electronics, and the pressure to pack more into every day. We’ve done a good job of teaching parents about why kids need to exercise and eat healthy foods, but the simple fact is that kids sleep less today than they once did. And unless we make an effort to get that sleep time back, their health will suffer.
So as we start this New Year, consider making getting more sleep one of your goals for the entire family!
Michelle Yetman, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor Clinical