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 properly.
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.
In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask our experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics. In our June 2012 issue, we asked WebMD's child care expert, Roy Benaroch, MD, if parents should still keep ipecac in case their child swallows a poison.
Q: I was always told to keep ipecac in the medicine cabinet. Now I hear I shouldn't. What changed?
A: For decades, parents were advised to keep a bottle of ipecac on hand, just in case a child ingested something poisonous...
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:
"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 personal best."
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.