The Importance of Sleep in Childhood

Guest Article by Sarah Cummings


The immediate effects of a good night’s rest are obvious, we leap out of bed feeling invincible rather than crawling out being an irritable mess.


The longer-term effects are a little less obvious and can be quite alarming. Sleep deprivation is strongly linked to a long list of serious mental and physical conditions – from obesity to strokes, heart disease to depression.


It almost goes without saying then that getting sufficient sleep is essential for our health. This applies to everyone, no matter the age, old or young. That’s why we should all do as much as we can to get as much of it as possible, including sorting out what we sleep on.


Getting quality sleep in childhood, however, takes on an even more essential role. In the early years of their lives, your child goes through an astonishing rate of physical and mental development.


Much of this development takes place when they are at rest, hence why your little ones spend so much time asleep. If their sleep is regularly broken this can have a big impact on their future.


Below we take a look at exactly why sleep is so important in childhood...



Early Brain Development


The pace of development in a baby’s brain in the first three years of life is – for want of a better phrase – quite mind-blowing.


By the age of three a new tot’s brain will have tripled in weight and a whopping 1,000 trillion new nerve connections will have been formed.


To put this in some perspective, by three a toddler has twice the number of neural connections the average adult does. Throughout adolescent redundant connections are dumped in a process known as ‘synaptic pruning’.


All this development requires a lot of energy. It’s been estimated that almost 50% of an infant’s glucose supply is directed toward the brain. It’s also for this reason that our little ones need so much rest.


Considering that it's not unusual for infants to spend more than half their day asleep it’s unsurprising that the quality of this sleep can impact their brain development.


Sleep and early speech development  


A number of studies have shown a strong correlation between how well a child sleeps and their ability to perceive speech.


One piece of research compared how sleep-deprived six-year-olds fared against their well-rested contemporaries when it came to identifying the beginning sounds of syllables. A test that’s believed to be a strong predictor of language development in later life.

The sleep-deprived cohort performed significantly worse than the well-rested group. Using fMRI scans researchers were able to identify considerable variations between the two groups in five separate areas of the brain.


The most concerning element of this particular study was that to qualify to be part of the sleep-deprived group all it took was to have missed one hour sleep a night for a week.


Yep, that’s right all it took for a marked difference was one hour missed sleep a night for a week. Now imagine if a child has shortened or broken sleep for their entire childhood! The impact could be hugely detrimental.


Sleep and academic performance


It might sound surprising but very few major long-term studies have been conducted into the impact of sleep deprivation on children, mainly because of ethical concerns about keeping our little ones up all night.


Of the studies that have been conducted, one piece of research known as the Millennium Cohort has yielded some of the most revealing results.


The Millennium Cohort followed a group of 11,000 infants born in the UK in 2000-1. Researchers looking at the data produced by the study concluded that children who had irregular bedtimes before the age of three demonstrated a notable academic lag compared to their well-rested contemporaries by the age of seven.


The bad sleepers were shown to found to be considerably less gifted when it came to reading, writing, maths and even spacial awareness. Yikes!


A similar Canadian study found that children infants who slept less were also more likely to develop attention related disorders, such as ADHD. Oh dear!


Final thoughts


The importance of sleep in children is still a relatively understudied field of research. What we do know however is that every indicator suggests that poor sleep at an early age can have a considerable negative impact on the cognitive development of our children. This can obviously have a huge impact on their academic performance as they grow up.


This knowledge is particularly concerning when you consider that the current young generation are suffering from sleeping disorders at an unprecedented rate. NHS data suggests that hospital attendances in England for children under 14 with sleep disorders have tripled in the past 10 years. Blimey!


I know it’s often hard to get your little one to settle at night but it’s your role as a parent to ensure your child gets the sleep their young mind and body requires.

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Forest Friend Lottie
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