Regular sleep habits can be a difficult to maintain—just when a child seems to be falling asleep beautifully, suddenly bedtime can become a waiting game. Lack of sleep can make it difficult for adults to cope, but what is the impact of sleep deprivation on children’s mind-body health?
We decided to check in with Pediatric Sleep Expert and Director for the International Association of Child Sleep Consultants (IACSC), Alanna McGinn, to see what she has to say about the relationship between sleep and children’s health. According to McGinn, a lack of sleep can affect our child’s development in a whole host of ways:
Sleep deprivation affects their developing brain, which means a child’s ability to process information, remember and learn are all compromised with inadequate sleep. McGinn says, “Well-rested children learn faster, and when your child isn’t getting the right amount or quality of sleep, they may demonstrate poor attention, memory, or decision-making.”
A tired child is a child who may be physically at risk. “Overtired children have impaired hand-eye coordination, which can impact fine motor skills. Everyday practices like walking, running, climbing stairs, and riding bikes can suddenly be extremely unsafe when children are tired,” according to McGinn.
We all know how hard it is to cope when children aren’t sleeping well – irritability, moodiness and feeling “zoned out” are familiar experiences for every parent of an infant. Well, it’s no different for our children, McGinn adds, “Tired children can be more hyperactive, oppositional, and irritable. Studies have shown an increase in behavior issues for all ages— when school aged children are struggling with sleep debt”.
Sleep deprivation compromises the entire mind-body system, and that includes children’s immunological defenses. McGinn tells us, “The body’s immune system has fewer barriers to illnesses without adequate rest. Poor sleep habits and increased sleep debt make children more likely to catch illnesses and infections.”
“Sleep is a common struggle in many homes, and we are seeing an increase in children and parents not getting the recommended daily amount of sleep.”
The biggest factors interfering with our children’s sleep health seem to fall into two areas according to McGinn:
Overly Late Bedtimes
Whether our children are toddlers or teens, we need to protect their bedtimes. With hurried and worried lifestyles, children’s bedtime routines are being pushed back beyond our limits. McGinn reminds us that,
“Understanding and practicing age-appropriate bedtimes, as well as calming and relaxing bedtime routines, ensures that youth can get the healthy sleep they need.”
Difficulty Falling Asleep and Night-time Waking
Our children may have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep for different reasons:
- Falling asleep independently is a core life skill that children develop over time. When a child fails to develop that skill, their sleep can be greatly interrupted by a constant need for parental support, and feelings of anxiety when that support isn’t there.
- Stress and anxiety are significant factors affecting a child’s healthy sleep. According to McGinn, “Starting school, social situations, other life changes, and even scary thoughts can give kids anxiety, which will affect sleep.” Overcoming those stressors and building tools to regulate are keys to ensuring children’s mind-body systems move from stressed to calm.
- McGinn also points out that, “enlarged tonsils and adenoids can disrupt breathing, and prevent restful sleep, breaking up the natural sleep cycles.”If sleep disruption is ongoing, don’t hesitate to consult with your child’s paediatrician to ensure psychological factors are ruled out.
The key to helping youth develop a successful relationship with sleep is in both knowing what children need, and guiding them with the values and skills that will lay the foundation for a lifetime of healthy rest. In our next segment, McGill shares her top 5 strategies to help your child get the healthy sleep they need.
Alanna McGinn is Founder and Sleep Consultant of Good Night Sleep Site, Parent Prep Educator, Director for the International Association of Child Sleep Consultants (IACSC), and serves on the faculty of the Family Sleep Institute. Alanna and her team of Good Night Sleep Consultants help families around the world – from baby to adult – sleep better and get the sleep health they deserve.