Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series on brain health.
One sheep, two sheep, three sheep, if you're anything like me, sleep has been something you've been dreaming about lately. With all of the fall school meetings, back-to-school nights, PTA events, soccer games, karate, and dance lessons, sleep has fallen to the bottom of the list. Well family, it's time to return to our good sleep habits, and here's why it's important if you'd like to join us!
Sleep is a process that we take for granted. When our lives get busy, that's the first thing to go. But sleep is essential for our bodies and our minds. It's the lack of or disruption of sleep that leads to a number of brain problems. Too little sleep has been associated with failure to thrive in toddlers, problems with blood flow to the lungs, hyperactivity, mental health and behavior problems, and poor school performance. It can lead to poor memory, make your child or teen slower to respond, and even mimic ADHD symptoms. At times, children who look inattentive actually have undiagnosed sleep disorders!
Lack of sleep takes away brainpower, leaving less chemical for the brain to use for learning and thinking. It becomes more difficult to get information into your child's memory and even more difficult for them to show their teachers what they know. Not only that, but children can appear moody and irritable because their brain doesn't have enough resources to control emotions (It's the control part that takes more brainpower). It's this lack of brainpower that has a trickle down effect making kids less likely to exercise, eat well, or participate in activities they enjoy. All of these side effects can lead to depression and other health problems.
What happens during sleep you might ask? It was once believed that our brains were inactive during sleep. Now, we know that there's actually a lot of activity. Sleep is the time that the chemicals in our brain (our neurotransmitters) send signals to tell us to be asleep and not to be awake. This is actually a lot of work! Because sleep uses the chemicals in our brain, substances like caffeine, anti-depressants, and even the foods we eat can make us less likely to sleep well. Our brain goes through five stages (1, 2, 3, 4, and REM) during which it processes and stores information and goes through an active process of shutting down the control of our bodies.
The stage called REM sleep is most essential to our brains. We spend most of the night in this stage. We also will "catch up" on this phase by quickly shifting to it when we lack sleep. Given the fact that our bodies actively shut down our body control systems, people can lose the ability to regulate their body temperature, experience temporary paralysis or lack of control of their limbs or other body parts (which is why some children involuntarily wet the bed at night), and dream. This stage is restorative and helps to process the activities and thoughts that occurred during the day, leaving room for new experiences tomorrow.
Now that we know how important sleep is, how many children are actually impacted by disruptions in sleep? When it comes to medical conditions leading to sleep problems, children with obesity are at particular risk of breathing problems throughout the night, which can disrupt their sleep patterns. Similarly, children can experience sleep disordered breathing. SDB can range from Primary Snoring with no disruption in sleep to Obstructive Sleep Apnea with problems breathing and lack of oxygen to the brain. Up to 34 percent of children can experience primary snoring, while only 0-3 percent likely experience more significant issues. Also, problems with tonsils and adenoids can impair sleep.
Sleep is important. Although we strive to get our children to sleep through the night, kids may lack a stable sleep pattern even up through the age of 4 according to research. Working towards the development of good sleep habits and routines goes a long way to supporting brain growth and development. So along with homework, school meetings, kid activities, play dates, and date nights, add sleep to the list of things to do!