I’m sure you can guess what my answer is to this question, since I am, after all, a paediatric sleep consultant. I tend to put a high priority on sleep and am, in my humble opinion, justifiably passionate about its benefits for children.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a firm believer that feeding our kids a healthy, balanced, varied diet is essential to their well-being.
But sleep is, if not equally as important, a very close contender. And research supports this.
Why is Sleep Important?
Sleep experts agree that consolidated (uninterrupted) sleep is the most restful and healthy kind of sleep for both infants and adults. Sleep that is interrupted by one or more awakenings during the night usually leads to daytime sleepiness, a decrease in mental flexibility and attention and mood impairments.
If you're reading this, you may be a parent whose sleep is interrupted by your child's night wakings, and you would probably know what I mean about not feeling well-rested or at your best in the morning!
Our little ones are no different. They need their SLEEP to function and develop at their personal BEST.
-Learning. Sleep has been shown to be important for maturation of infants’ brains and consolidation of their memories. Several studies have shown that babies and children with more efficient nighttime sleep (greater percentage of time spent asleep during the night) had higher cognitive scores.
- Mood. Children that sleep more at night have been found to have an “easier” temperament, being more approachable, less distractible, and more adaptable.
- Growth. Good quality sleep fuels growth in children; and boosts muscle mass and the repair of cells and tissues. Children with lack of sleep are also more at risk of obesity.
A 2008 study by the National Institute of Health looked at the average number of daily hours of sleep that kids between 6 months and two years old were getting, and then compared those results with their occurences of obesity. The children who got an average of less than 12 hours of sleep a day were over twice as likely to be obese than those who slept for 12 or more. A much larger study done in the UK showed similar results.
With all of the health issues, as well as the general quality of life concerns that come along with obesity, it seems to me that sleep should be a major concern for parents.
However, every day I hear people advising new parents with what I’m sure is meant to be reassuring rhetoric, but I must admit, given the evidence, I find it really upsetting.
“Babies sleep when they want to sleep. Don’t force it.”
“Not sleeping is totally normal for a baby.”
“Just follow your baby’s lead. They know how much sleep they need.”
Can you imagine this same kind of talk if it was concerning baby’s diet?
“Kid’s know what’s healthy to eat. Just follow their lead.”
“Eating chocolate is totally normal for kids.”
“Kids will eat when they’re ready. You shouldn’t schedule mealtimes.”
If you heard those words coming out of anybody’s mouth, you would immediately qualify them as a lunatic, and you certainly wouldn’t listen to their advice on your kids.
As parents, we all obviously want our kids to live healthy, active lives, and we want to give them every advantage to ensure they get a good start. Making sure they get enough sleep, and teaching them solid sleep skills, will go a long way to promoting their overall health down the road.