Sleep Will Make Your Child A Superhero
Sleep is amazing! It’s kind of a mystery as to what exactly happens in our brains during sleep, but we need it. When we get a good night's sleep, we feel like we have super powers!
Scientists do not fully understand why we need to sleep, what causes us to sleep, and what causes us to wake up. We do know sleep works to restore our bodies and our brains after a long day. We know a kid’s growing brain and body NEED sleep more then ever for development, growth, learning, mood regulation, and fighting illness.
REM and Non-REM Sleep
There are 2 distinct stages of sleep: non-REM (rapid eye movement) and REM. Both of these types serve functions for our bodies and our brains, and we cycle in out of these during the night. When we are in non-REM deep sleep, our brains and muscles are quiet and completely relaxed. When we are in REM sleep our bodies are relaxed but our brains are very active, dreaming, and have strange, involuntary rapid eye movements. There are many theories as to why we have REM, but scientists do not know the real purpose of it and of dreams!
When we have enough deep restorative sleep, we are more alert and can think clearly, critically. For our ancestors, good sleep was essential for survival. Good sleep allows us to process our emotional experiences and store new memories in the long-term memory part of our brains. We know when people do not sleep enough. They are more irritable and have a harder time controlling emotions. They are also more forgetful. We know the unhealthy chemicals in our brains that build up during the day from our neurons firing are washed away during sleep. We now know if these chemicals are not washed away they can cause protein plaque build-up, leading to Alzheimer’s dementia later in life. So good sleep can prevent dementia!
Sleep is Good for Your Health
Kids need more sleep than adults because their bodies and brains are growing like crazy, and they are little sponges! Kids absorb new information and experiences every single day.
A major part of a child’s overall health (and anyone’s health for that matter) is getting enough sleep and getting enough consistently.
The key to getting a good night’s sleep for kids is a steady bedtime routine. A routine allows your body and brain to know what to do at the end of the day to wind down before going to sleep. Kids need to LEARN how to fall asleep. It’s a lifelong skill!
A poor nights sleep is one thing, but chronic sleep deprivation is VERY harmful for children.
Sleep is so important for keeping the brain alert, and calm. In children, we see poor sleep habits cause problems with concentration, anxiety, and depression. Kids who do not sleep well complain more of headaches and miss more school.
Not sleeping well puts kids at risk for obesity and diabetes. Your stress hormone levels rise. Over time, high amounts of the stress hormones circulating through your body causes problems like high blood sugar and a higher risk for diabetes. This makes you more prone to illness and infection.
So why do kids have a hard time sleeping?
The answer is complicated. Kids have jam packed schedules, after-school activities, homework, AND sensory overload with TVs, computers, iPads, and smart phones all around them. It’s important for kids to stay active but not to be overloaded. It's also important to wind down at the end of the day to prepare for sleep. This does not include watching TV or playing video games. Screens actually activate the brain and make it much harder to fall asleep.
Kids can develop insomnia, a condition when you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep through the night. Nightmares, restless leg syndrome, sleep terrors, sleep talking or walking can also cause kids to sleep poorly. Sleep apnea or snoring can also keep kids from getting a good nights rest as they cause a lot of night waking. If you have any concerns about these issues you should talk to your pediatrician.
What’s the deal with melatonin in kids?
There has been a lot of press recently about melatonin use in kids for sleeping issues. Melatonin is an over-the-counter supplement used to help people fall asleep. Melatonin is also a hormone made in your body in low amounts. You should not use it with your child without talking to your doctor first. There are some potential risks of hormone disruption that can happen in the brain when melatonin is used in kids. A doctor can help guide when it’s appropriate to use it and how much you should be using.
Most school age kids need anywhere from 9-11 hours of sleep at night!
10 tips to help your kiddos get the sleep they need!
- Set a regular bedtime every night. Try to stick to it! Set a bedtime routine that is calming and relaxing to your child. A shower or bath before bed, picking out clothes for the next day, and reading in bed are some examples. It’s important to develop a routine so your kid’s body knows its time to get ready to sleep.
- Avoid screen time 1 hour before bed.
- Avoid anything with caffeine including chocolate six hours before bed!
- Keep the room dark! Darkness promotes melatonin production, the hormone that makes you sleepy.
- Be a good role model. Make sleep a priority for you too!
- Be active and get fresh air during the day! Exercise promotes healthy sleep at night.
- Make sure your child is not too hot, cold, or hungry at night and before bed. Sometimes a snack one hour before bed with protein in it can help you fall asleep easier. Examples: warm milk, almonds, or a hard boiled egg.
- Read a “feel good” story. Avoid scary movies or stories.
- Keep a journal. Write thoughts, worries, or fears down before you go to bed so they are not bouncing around in your head as you try to fall asleep. Write down a favorite part of the day or something you feel thankful for. This helps you feel comforted before falling asleep.
- Talk to your pediatrician if you notice your child snores, has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or has excessive daytime sleepiness or “zoning out” during the day.
Dr. Sarah Logan, MD is a full time mom and part-time family doctor in Vermont with experience in both Family Medicine and Emergency Medicine. She loves working with people of all ages, but her true passion is working with kids! She has 2 little guys (ages 1 and 3) at home, who keep her on her toes.