Sleep: What's the Big Deal?
Updated: Mar 6
Sleep has always been, and will likely continue to be, a bit of a mystery. Thanks to sleep researchers like Matthew Walker, the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley, we are gaining a deeper and more evidence based understanding every day.
The Impact of Sleep on Learning
We’re all familiar with the fact that we have a hard time focusing on information when we’re running on too little sleep. Absorbing information is only ⅓ of this picture.
Learning and memory are divided into three functions. Acquisition, consolidation, and recall. Acquisition and recall take place while you’re awake. But consolidation takes place during sleep.
Evidence suggests that adequate sleep each day is very important for learning and memory. Even if you manage to focus on what you’re learning, without sleep, that information won’t be properly stored in the brain.
Put simply, without sleep we can’t effectively learn.
The Impact of Sleep on Mood
Data shows that individuals who experience even partial sleep deprivation report feelings of anxiety, anger, sadness and mental exhaustion. While these compromised experiences aren’t surprising to us, it may interest you to know why.
Sleep deprivation stimulates activity in the amygdala. That’s the part of the brain responsible for feelings of, among other things, anger and fear. These amped-up feelings can lead to an overall sense of stress and irritability towards others.
In general, we can’t really be our best selves when we are running low on sleep.
The Impact of Sleep on Our Health
Short of eating and breathing, you would be hard pressed to find anything with more health benefits than sleep.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults who regularly get between 7-9 hours of sleep see significantly lower rates of obesity, high blood pressure, stroke, infections, depression, diabetes, weight gain, inflammation, hypertension, heart disease, dementia and heart failure. They also report higher satisfaction with their sex lives, better performance at work, and take fewer sick days than people who typically sleep less than 7 hours a night. There’s no question that sleep, while it remains mysterious, is definitely an essential part of a healthy, happy lifestyle.
Sleep Deprivation in Children
But that all changes when you have a baby, right? You’ve brought a new life into this world, and you’re expected to sacrifice your sleep for a few years - maybe even six or seven, in order to respond to your child’s needs.
Isn’t it amazing when they don’t have healthy independent sleep skills, how many needs children appear to have in the middle of the night?
In my mind, this is the most prolific myth about parenthood, and one that needs to be transformed. Because here’s the thing; your child needs sleep even more than you do.
Those little bodies may look like they’re idle when they sleep, but there’s an absolute frenzy of work going on behind the scenes. Growth hormones are being secreted to help your baby gain weight and cytokines are being produced to fight off infections and produce antibodies.
Children are consolidating all of the information they receive during the waking hours - from gross motor skill development to language. All kinds of miraculous, intricate systems are at work laying the foundation for your child’s growth and development. These needs don’t go away as your child grows and develops - if anything, they increase for the adolescent brain and body.
The good news is that nature does the heavy lifting. All that’s required of your little one is to close their eyes and sleep. As a sleep expert, I constantly hear from parents that their “babies just don’t sleep well” and that they “expect their little ones to wake up repeatedly throughout the night”.
Just accepting your baby’s fragmented sleep as a part of the parenting experience is preventing you from addressing the issues and that’s a serious concern for the whole family.
Sleep and When to Make a Change
If your baby or young child is waking up several times a night and crying until you come into the room and rock her back to sleep, that’s not parenthood-as-usual. That’s a baby who has trouble sleeping, and it’s interfering with her body’s natural development. It’s no different than an ear infection or jaundice.
It’s a health issue and it has a remedy, so anyone telling you to grin and bear it for the next few years probably just doesn’t understand that there are realistic, reasonable solutions for parents today. An exception I should mention is with newborns. Sleep and nutritional needs vary greatly in the first 12-16 weeks of life. I address this in my Blog: Understanding Newborn Sleep.
If your child is struggling to get the sleep you know he or she needs, book a free call to talk about it. Can you imagine your whole family sleeping through the night in as little as three weeks? Sometimes we just need some support along the way.