Sleep is no less important than food, drink, or safety in the
lives of children. Although this may seem apparent, many of us actually do not
allow our children to get the critical sleep they need to develop and function
It's certainly not something we do on purpose. As a matter of
fact, we often don't think much of it, and that is the problem. With parents
working long hours, schedules packed with school, after-school activities, and
other lifestyle factors, naps are missed, bedtimes are pushed back, mornings
start earlier and nights may be anything but peaceful. Missing naps or going to
bed a little late may not seem like a big deal, but it is. It all adds up, with
consequences that may last a lifetime.
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To understand the critical nature of sleep to our children's
growth and development, we need to understand more about what sleep does, what
healthy sleep is, and what happens when children do not get either the right
amount of sleep, the best quality sleep, or both. We also need to understand
the role sleep plays in being alert or drowsy, stressed or relaxed, and how
that in turn may affect temperament, learning, and social behavior.
In his book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, Marc
Weissbluth, MD, provides these insightful comments on the functions of
"Sleep is the power source that keeps your mind alert and
calm. Every night and at every nap, sleep recharges the brain's battery.
Sleeping well increases brainpower just as weight lifting builds stronger
muscles, because sleeping well increases your attention span and allows you to
be physically relaxed and mentally alert at the same time. Then you are at your
Essentials of Healthy Sleep
Healthy sleep requires:
A sufficient amount of sleep
Uninterrupted (good quality) sleep
The proper number of age-appropriate naps
A sleep schedule that is in sync with the child's natural biological
rhythms (internal clock or circadian rhythm)
If, over time, any of these essentials are not optimal,
symptoms of sleep deprivation may occur.
Optimal alertness: Healthy sleep allows us to function
optimally when we are awake, to have what is called optimal alertness. We have
all experienced varying degrees of being awake, from groggy to alert to
hyper-alert. Being optimally alert is the state in which we are most receptive
to and interactive with our environment, when we have the greatest attention
span and can learn the most. You can see this in a child who is calm and
attentive, pleasant, with wide eyes looking around, absorbing everything, one
who socially interacts with ease. Altered states of alertness interfere with
learning and behavior.