I remember seeing a post on Instagram once with a quote stating "I never knew what tiredness was until I became a parent!" For all new parents out there, sleep is a hot topic of discussion and many of us spend hours pouring over blogs, books, articles and speaking to friends to try and figure out how we can get our little ones to sleep for that little bit longer. We all know that lack of sleep makes us feel tired, sluggish and desperately reaching for the coffee but why is sleep so critical for us to function? Why is it that children should be sleeping 10-12 hours during the night and what happens to their bodies whilst they sleep?
Here are 6 important functions of sleep that you may or may not be aware of:
1. Sleep helps with brain development
Our brain uses more energy than any other organ in the body and it is during sleep that the brain clears out any toxins that have been produced. Brains process and consolidate our memories while we sleep. It helps our children remember the important things in life and without sleep, they cannot form new pathways in the brain that help them learn new things. Sleep is critical to maintain focus, attention and alertness and for children who do not get enough, they will struggle to focus and maintain attention whilst at school.
2. Sleep promotes growth
When children sleep, their body goes through different restorative processes throughout the night. Deep sleep is the phase of sleep that happens at the start of night sleep, and it is at this time that the body is focused on physical growth and restoration. The brain’s pituitary gland releases growth hormone throughout the day. However, the largest amount of growth hormone is released during the first phase of night sleep (deep sleep) which makes up almost half of your child’s entire days’ worth of growth hormone release.
3. Sleep helps maintain a healthy heart
The cardiovascular system depends on sleep too – the heart recovers with the lower heart rate and blood pressure we experience during sleep and any repair that is needed can take place too. People whose sleep is interrupted or get an insufficient amount of sleep are more likely to have higher blood pressure and sleep disorders like sleep apnoea. Sleep disorders are the leading cause of high blood pressure and even teenagers, if their sleep is insufficient or disturbed, are more likely to have higher blood pressure.
4. Sleep helps fight germs
Sleep is crucial to build our resilience to infection. At night, your child’s brain releases chemicals that support immune system repair. These include cytokines, the molecules that direct immune cells to areas of infection or inflammation. During winter, if you are exposed to the common cold, you will have a higher chance of contracting a cold if you have not had sufficient sleep. So consolidated sleep and enough sleep is critical to our immune system as shorter sleep time has also been linked to higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that reduces the activation of the immune system, which can get in the way of healing.
5. Sleep helps prevent obesity
Sleep and appetite got linked somewhere along the line - when we are sleep deprived, we release more hormones that make us feel hungry and less of the hormones that make you feel satisfied with what you have had. Sleep depriving ourselves voluntarily and having a food source right there, means that we are more likely to overeat and binge on junk foods to help us feel energised. Studies have shown that the rise in obesity and diabetes has paralleled the epidemic of sleep deficiency in our society and it is not just an issue with adults but studies have shown that lack of sleep in children and adolescents also puts them at risk of developing obesity.
6. Sleep helps us regulate emotions
Research shows that sleep-deficient children have more problems getting along with others and are more prone to anger, frustration, and temper tantrums than well-rested ones. What you may not know: If sleep deprivation becomes chronic, a child may also become predisposed to anxiety or depression later on.
So to summarise, sleep deprivation sets up a perfect storm for children where their whole body is affected both mentally and physically!
So how much sleep does your child needs? Sleep is by no means linear and your child’s sleep needs will change over time. Generally, toddlers need around 12 hours of sleep a night; children aged three to six need around 10-12 hours; seven-twelve years olds need 10-11 hours; and teenagers – around 8-9 hours.
Is a good nights’ sleep a distant memory for you and your family? Well Harpreet Pottay is the founder of Sleep Catcher and is on a mission to help families who are struggling with their childrens’ sleep. Harpreet has had a 14 year career working in the city in a highly pressured and fast paced environment and so understands the struggles of juggling a demanding job alongside bringing up a young family. After working with a sleep consultant for her first-born son, Harpreet quickly realised that instilling great sleep habits was the key to be able to juggle the everyday demands of a young working family. Families with young children often feel that having disturbed sleep is part of the parcel of being parents but Harpreet wants to put an end to that myth and help families understand that they do not need to suffer in silence and help is out there! Find her business on Instagram, Facebook, and her website. You can also view Harpreet’s personal page on Linkedin.