Sleep – we all do it, we all need it. But are we getting enough of it? The reality is that many are not getting enough quality sleep on a daily basis, especially our children. Though parents may realize that their children are not getting enough sleep, they may not know the extent to which sleep deprivation impacts a child’s development. However, classroom teachers know. At all grade levels, teachers regularly encounter students who show signs of sleep deprivation.
Sleep is powerful fuel for the body and the brain. It impacts physical health, cognitive function, and mood regulation. The degree to which sleep impacts a child’s emotional and physical development cannot be overstated. Healthy sleep results in optimal alertness, a state during which we are the most receptive to and interactive with our surroundings. When optimally alert we:
learn the most
have the most substantial attention span
A student’s inability to pay attention and demonstrate optimal learning at school is a red flag. Unfortunately, further analysis of struggling students has resulted in some (perhaps a great many) being mislabeled/misdiagnosed. With the increase in the number of young children struggling with behavior and learning issues, scientists have identified similarities between sleep deprivation and other diagnoses such as Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Both children diagnosed with ADHD and children who lack sufficient sleep on a regular basis tend to have difficulty settling down. Their inability to 'settle themselves' makes it hard for them to concentrate and listen to directions. Children in both groups tend to be more irritable and struggle with managing their emotions. Additionally, children who are sleep deprived and those diagnosed with ADHD may show cognitive deficits in the areas of memory and problem-solving, as well as struggle with social and behavioral problems (Academic Pediatrics, Vol. 17, No. 6, 2017). With such striking similarities, it is certainly plausible that misdiagnosis and mistreatment could result.
Sleep deprivation also contributes to other health problems. According to a 2019 report by the Centers for Disease Control, children and adolescents who fail to get enough sleep on a regular basis are at higher risk for injury, developing obesity, type 2 diabetes, and poor mental health.
Though not necessarily intentional, long hours at work, packed schedules, and extra-curricular activities often negatively impact sleep routines for an entire family. Some families have no sleep routine at all! During my career as an elementary classroom teacher and administrator, I dialogued with many children who openly shared that they had no set bedtime and went to bed whenever they pleased. Some admitted to spending the entire night wherever they happened to fall asleep. Inconsistent, or non-existent, sleep routines pave the way for increased stress in children and adults. Allowing children to miss naps, go to bed late or have random bedtimes are all practices that can have negative consequences that last a lifetime.
As a nation we tend to underestimate the importance of parent modeling. Parent modeling is an extremely effective parenting tool and one of the most influential means of conveying to children what is important. Parents who consciously follow a set nighttime routine attest to benefits that can transform an entire family. The process will likely involve growing pains, but the payoff is worth the pain. Rested children are more attentive, calmer, and responsive. Rested children are happier children! Who wouldn't want that for their family?
The research is clear. Maintaining a steady, appropriate, sleep routine positively impacts a child’s physical, emotional, intellectual, and social development in critical and sustainable ways. When it comes to the health and wellness of children, sleep is equally as important as food, drink, and safety. We owe it to children to treat is as such.
Daily Sleep Recommendations by age:
0-3 months: no formal recommendation (though typically 12-18 hours)
4–12 months: 12–16 hours (including naps)
1–2 years: 11–14 hours (including naps)
3–5 years: 10–13 hours (including naps)
6–12 years: 9–12 hours
13–18 years: 8–10 hours
© Sharon Knapp Lamberth, January 2022