I recently finished reading NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, which I really enjoyed. Most parenting books I’ve read (quite a few!) say similar things, but I still usually learn a nugget or two with every book. NurtureShock is a good one, particularly the chapter about sleep.
Sleep and health
There seems to be a pervasive attitude that less sleep means you’re a hard worker, you’re successful, you’re tough, you can accomplish more; only lazy people sleep a lot. The way I see it, bragging about getting no sleep is kind of like bragging that you only eat fast food and candy. It’s nothing to be proud of! Of course there are times when it’s difficult to get enough sleep: when you have a newborn, you have exams or a big work project, you’re going on a big trip… but if these things continue indefinitely, you need to find a way to fix it or it can have a major impact on your health, directly and indirectly. And like all biological variables, the amount of sleep people need varies. Don’t compare yourself to others: know your own body and the amount of sleep you need. And this goes for your kids, too!
Sleep and nutrition
There is evidence to show that those who sleep less tend to eat more, and less healthy foods. Hormonal changes due to lack of sleep cause an increase in hunger. Plus, staying up later leaves more time to snack, at a time when it’s harder to resist because our defenses are lower. I always find it much easier to eat well in the morning! Another reason is that lack of sleep results in lower energy, and we try to make up for that by eating more.
Sleep in children and teenagers
For children and teenagers, sleep is even more important. The brain is still developing well into our twenties, and many neural connections are formed in childhood and adolescence. Proper sleep is necessary in order for memories to solidify. Poor sleep can affect ability to pay attention in class, behaviour, social skills, attitude, and short-term academic performance, as well as long-term memory and learning. It can also make children even more impulsive than they naturally are. In other words, a tired child is a grumpy, forgetful child who has trouble learning and makes poor choices. (Preventing grumpiness has always been my main motivator for getting my kids to bed on time and not over-scheduling them!)
In Bronson and Merryman’s chapter on sleep, they discussed a school board that had later start times to encourage better sleep habits in their students. The reason was that adolescents are biologically programmed to sleep later than younger children or adults, and waking them up earlier just makes them tired. Having later start times at schools had a positive effect on behaviour and academic performance.
Main reasons why you should make sleep a priority in your house
Tired kids and adults:
- have less energy for physical activity (and we all know how important physical activity is for health!)
- eat more; often higher calorie and nutrient-poor foods
- use more stimulants like coffee and energy drinks that contain caffeine and sugar: they can cause increased heart rates and feelings of anxiety
- have trouble concentrating, leading to a vicious cycle of lower grades or poor work performance, reduced self-confidence, and not being motivated to try
- have less patience, a more negative attitude, difficulty getting along with people, and lower self esteem
- are more likely to eat for emotional reasons, making it more likely they will gain weight, have health problems, body dissatisfaction and a perceived lack of self-control
So you can see how getting enough sleep can have a direct effect on our nutritional health. It is all connected!
American Academy of Sleep Medicine. AASM to School-Bound: Sleep is the Right Ingredient for Academic Success. (2007). Accessed on June 4th 2013 from http://www.aasmnet.org/articles.aspx?id=517>
Bronson P and Merryman A. (2009) NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. Grand Central Publishing. New York.
Dahl RE. Sleep, Learning, and the Developing Brain: Early-to-Bed as a Healthy and Wise Choice for School-Aged Children. Sleep (2005) 28(12) 1498-1499.
National Sleep Foundation. Backgrounder: Later School Start Times. Accessed on June 4th 2013 from http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/hot-topics/backgrounder-later-school-start-times