4 Reasons Sleep is More Important Than You Thought for Your Child
Updated: Mar 24
When Olivia was little, she used to wake up with the sun. Dawn would break and she would jump on her parents with a wake-up call more effective than any alarm clock. It got annoying very quickly, but at least they were never late for school.
Middle school had no “Olivia alarms” and her parents were grateful. By high school though, her parents were the ones dragging Olivia out of bed and fighting to get her ready. Olivia was more irritable and bleary-eyed than anyone had ever seen her. It was no surprise that her parents started wondering if something was wrong...
Actually, kids like Olivia are right on schedule. And the change has to do with one of humanity’s most basic biological necessities: sleep.
Most people consider sleep to be a waste of time — an obligation that must be finished and gotten out of the way so we can get on with the more important (more conscious) parts of our lives. Sleep can be cut short, snatched back via naps, or done away with altogether, if the project is important enough to pull an all-nighter. Adults as well as children subscribe to this prevailing view.
However, sleep serves several critical functions — for adults and growing children — the importance of which would surprise you. Here are just four of the many things sleep does for you.
1. Emotional stability
Most adults know that if a child doesn’t sleep well at night, the next day is going to be a series of unfortunate events.
“Benevolently servicing our psychological health, sleep recalibrates our emotional brain circuits, allowing us to navigate next-day social and psychological challenges with cool-headed composure” (p.7), says neuroscientist Dr. Matthew Walker in his book “Why We Sleep.” The teen brain is developing an abnormally biased toward the emotional side of things, hence some of the curious risk-taking behaviors we see in adolescents. Any stabilization teens can get is incredibly important. Walker also says that sleep deprivation shuts down the rational part of your brain — the prefrontal cortex — first. If teens are already struggling to access rational thought, weakening their prefrontal cortex further is going to make them even more vulnerable to poor decision-making than they already are.
Another related question which was touched on in the beginning of this article is why teens tend to be so groggy and angry in the mornings. This has to do with biological shifts in their circadian rhythms, or the natural rhythms of wakefulness and sleep. Most of us refer to this colloquially as our “sleep schedule.”
Staying on a schedule has been found to be most helpful for getting consistent sleep. Getting off of your sleep schedule can mess with your head, even as an adult.
But what sets your sleep schedule?
Most of us believe we set our own sleep schedule. It is true that grownups have some control there, but studies show that teens are a little bit different.
As stated by Walker on page 93 of his book, the circadian rhythm, the natural pattern of wakefulness and sleep, of a teen actually shifts dramatically, resulting in their brains not releasing sleep signals until late into the night. Teens are not able to fall asleep early, no matter how much they may want to, any more than parents can force themselves to fall asleep at an earlier hour than normal, say 7:00 pm. Then of course, teens comport themselves with about as much dignity and grace as parents would if asked to begin their day at 4:00 am, adds Walker humorously.
2. Brain development
Not only are teens’ sleep times shifted back, they also need more sleep than your average adult. It is actually when teens are asleep that their brains are freed up to work on the maturation process to develop themselves into adult brains.
As a child, a multitude of neural connections were developed because the brain needed to prepare for as many contingencies as possible. Now that your child has gotten older, many of these connections have proved unnecessary. Since human brains have limited space, these superfluous connections are pruned away so priority can be given to develop neural pathways the teen actually needs and uses. More sleep allows the teenage brain more time to work on itself, resulting in more growth and efficiency.
This process occurs within adults as well, though our brains have already had their foundations set. Part of the function of sleep is to discard the useless, trivial things that may have happened during the day and emphasize and catalog the important. Lack of sleep for us leads, unsurprisingly, to poor memory and slower brain function.
While these effects are not great for adults, in teens sleep deprivation can have these consequences and worse. Consider, if healthy sleep leads to a healthy brain, bad sleep is not likely to have the same result. Psychiatric illness is not guaranteed, but, as Walker states, “many of the major psychiatric disorders, such a schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, and ADHD are now considered disorders of abnormal development, since they commonly emerge during childhood and adolescence” (p.91).
3. Rebalancing hormones
When most people think “hormones,” what comes to mind is hormonal teenagers making bad sexual decisions. However, hormones are more than that.
Insulin, the regulator of blood sugar and the lack of which causes diabetes, is a hormone. There are hormones that control your appetite, one for the feeling of hunger and another for the feeling of fullness; hormones that control your stress levels which in turn affect your gut health; and hormones that control libido and reproduction, just to name a few.
Lack of sleep has grievous effects on all of these hormones. When sleep deprived, cells stop responding to insulin, the hormone for hunger gets out of control, and stress hormones ramp way up. Libido and reproductive health also diminish, not to mention, as we’ve already discovered, rational thought (and therefore impulse control) is out the window. The combination of all of these eventually culminates in a physical and emotional state that no parents want for their children.
It is natural for life to throw us curve balls, causing our bodies to compensate in different ways, often via hormones. Usually, this keeps us safe and healthy, but without a reset back to natural baselines, hormone compensations become excessive with cumulative results of disease and obesity, regardless of healthy eating or exercise. Sleep helps rebalance and restabilize all of our bodies’ functions, important not just for optimal activity and behavior, but also for long-term health.
4. Strengthens the immune system
What do you naturally tell your teen to do when he or she comes downstairs coughing and sniffling?
Go back to bed!
We naturally know that sleep helps us recover when we are sick, and our bodies tell us so in no uncertain terms. “When you fall ill, the immune system actively stimulates the sleep system, demanding more bed rest to help reinforce the war effort” (Why We Sleep, p.181).
It’s not just the healing process that sleep supports, sleep also keeps us from getting sick in the first place. The immunity cells which are responsible for destroying foreign elements in the body, from infections to flu viruses to cancer cells, can be reduced up to 70 percent after a single night of four hours of sleep.
It’s getting to the point where certain studies have named nighttime work shifts and the sleep disruption they cause as a carcinogen. Cancer cells in particular not only don’t get destroyed by the immune system when sleep is in short supply, it even takes advantage of remaining cells and inflammation associated with the stress of sleep deprivation to metastasize — meaning to spread throughout the body — more quickly.
There is even evidence the suggest that people who don’t sleep also don’t develop proper antibodies when getting a vaccine, something worth considering carefully in these times.
Clearly, we all need sleep in order to be truly healthy. It’s also something that our bodies delight in, or else alarm clocks wouldn’t be so annoying and dragging your kids out the door wouldn’t be so difficult. If sleep is something that will benefit your children immensely AND they want it, often quite desperately, then it makes sense to start making sleep a priority.
Making sure your children get enough sleep is an easy way to care for them as they grow. Spark Tutors is proud to be a part of your support system, with academic development and reinforcement at the ready for whenever you need us.
We hope this article has made you more aware of the advantages of sleep, both for your children and for yourself. As the new year begins, we encourage you to truly rest and refocus on what — and who — is most important to you. We’ll see you at the tutoring table!