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The importance of sleep in child development

Sleep is important for everyone. Quality sleep lets us rest and regenerate, makes us less prone to diseases and long term health issues, and generally turns us into happier and more easy going creatures. But when it comes to children, sleep is extra important for them because their bodies and brains are developing at a rapid speed.

The difference between a child regularly getting quality sleep and one who is constantly under-sleeping can manifest in ability to focus the next day, test scores the next week, the number of illnesses the next year, and long term health issues ten years down the road.

What exactly does sleep do to our kids that makes it so important?

REM and NREM sleep in child development

The two main stages of sleep, which alternate throughout the night, Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, play different roles in physical and mental development.

Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM), which includes a stage of deep or slow-wave sleep, is when tissue growth happens, energy is restored, and hormones that are essential for growth and development are released.

The Rapid Eye Movement(REM) stage is when the brain is active and dreaming occurs. REM sleep is responsible for normal brain development, memory and learning.

“It had been theorized that REM sleep is important for brain development, because infants spend up to 70 percent of their sleep time in REM sleep, as compared to adult humans, who typically only spend about 20 percent of their sleep in the REM stage,” says Marcos Frank, a neuroscientist at WSU Spokane who co-authored a study published in Science Advances confirming the effect of REM sleep on developmental brain plasticity.

The effects of not enough sleep

Not getting enough sleep will have both short term and long-term effects on children. Kids who don’t sleep enough are likely to show behavioural problems such as aggression, hyperactivity or general inability to regulate behaviour. They also tend to be more moody, irritable and anxious.

At school they will be less organised and have troubles concentrating.

The lack of sleep will also affect their ability to solve complex problems and store information necessary for learning.

Physically, they may have problems with motor coordination – be more prone to accidents and clumsier in sports, and even more prone to obesity. Their immune system will also suffer, making them sick more often.

How much sleep do children need?

There is no magic number for how many hours of sleep a child needs. Everyone is different, and just as with adults, kids have their own requirements, differences and personal needs. But the general guidelines are that babies under the age of one need between 14 and 18 hours of sleep per day, toddlers 12-14 hours, primary school kids 10-12 hours, and teenagers should sleep between 8 and 10 hours each night.

It is hard to know exactly how much sleep your particular child need, but if they generally maintain reasonable bedtime habits, go to bed at the same time and wake up refreshed and happy, and don’t show significant behavioural problems or developmental delays, they are likely getting enough.

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