Sleep If You Know What’s Good For You

sleep deprivation and kids, why kids must sleep, importance of bedtimes,
"Faithful Watcher" Wikimedia Commons

My mother, the registered nurse, strictly enforced hand-washing, early bedtimes, and other health standards that seemed archaic to her offspring. Even in the summertime I remember lying in bed long before darkness rolled in, listening to my friends laughing and playing down the street. I vowed to be more laid back with my own kids.

Now that I’m a parent I try to make sure my kids get a reasonable amount of sleep. I just do so in a more casual manner. Turns out that’s good, because recent studies prove my mother’s emphasis on a decent night’s sleep was spot on.

How long babies sleep at night seems to help them grow into calmer, more cooperative children. Researchers in Canada assessed the nighttime sleep of 60 toddlers at 12 and 18 months of age, then assessed the executive function (EF) of these children six to eight months later. Higher total sleep time at both ages related to better EF indicators such as impulse control.  Children develop unevenly but as you can imagine, early gains in EF skills including attentiveness, self-discipline, and cooperation are entirely positive. While 12 to 14 hours of sleep is recommended for toddlers, you’ll be relieved to know that the number of times children woke at night didn’t affect test results. Each of my four children could easily be described as “difficult” babies. They slept very little at night (and thanks to them none of us slept much at night) until, thanks to a friend’s old copy of The Continuum Concept I began bringing my little ones into bed with me. They slept more peacefully and longer. We all did.

The amount of sleep young children get is also closely related to learning. A study of 8,000 preschoolers found that children with regular early bedtimes scored higher in most developmental measures including pre-reading, language, and early math skills. This study found that children getting fewer than 11 hours of sleep scored lower in a range of tests. In the preschool years, 11 to 13 hours of sleep is recommended. I have to wonder if the study factored in all the relevant variables. These learning gains may be related to consistent styles of parenting (not only bedtimes but conversation, reading aloud, and other elements of enriched upbringing) versus more chaotic styles of parenting. In my family we have imposed bedtimes on all but the oldest teens, but we’ve always been pretty flexible. There are plenty of things worth postponing a child’s sleep—a concert in the park, a gathering with friends that extends well into the night,  or sitting around a bonfire telling stories.

The importance of sleep also extends to behavior. A study of nearly 7,000 preschoolers, the same data sample used for the learning outcome study, indicated that children who got less sleep in the preschool years were also assessed as more hyperactive, impulsive, and unable to pay attention by the time they reached kindergarten. In one of many chicken and egg issues facing social science, it isn’t clear if children develop these problems due to limited sleep or if difficulty sleeping may be an indicator of a pre-existing problem. One of my children was diagnosed with ADD. He slept just fine. We discovered the problem had quite a bit more to do with food intolerances and a serious mismatch with today’s educational approach.

There are plenty of other studies telling us that we need to sleep well. Some of us may even be wearing our exhaustion in the form of extra pounds. Sleep deprivation is linked to obesity in preschoolers and children, as well as in teens and adults.   Around here, the kids who stay up with me watching late night TV are annoyingly thin and energetic, but their insomniac mother should be a better role model. I suppose I could lie in bed listening to my loved ones laughing and playing on these summer nights while I pretend to sleep.

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Laura is the author of a poetry collection titled Tending and Free Range Learning, a handbook of natural learning. She lives on a small farm notable only for its lovestruck goose.