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The role of sleep in childhood brain development

The role of sleep in childhood brain development

September 6, 2012

Getting enough sleep is essential for children – and not just to give parents a bit of peace and quiet! The human brain continues to develop from birth through adolescence, but the most changes occur between 0 – 4. Sleep deprivation at any age can have a negative effect on health, but a good night’s sleep is of critical importance during childhood.

REM and non-REM sleep

Sleep is of course associated with stillness and rest, but the brain is very active in ways different than when awake. The two main stages of sleep are the rapid eye movement (REM) phase and the non-REM phase. People of all ages, including infants, experience dreams during REM sleep. In fact, cycles of REM and non-REM sleep begin before a baby is even born. Although the reasons we dream remains an open question, lack of sufficient REM sleep interferes with memory formation in both humans and animals.

Infants spend more than half their time asleep, much of it in REM sleep. It’s likely these many hours of sleep are needed to support active brain growth and early learning about the world. As children become toddlers their sleep needs decrease slightly, from 12-14 hours to 10-12 hours per day. Naps commonly make up part of this time. From about the age of 4 until adolescence, children typically need 8-10 hours of sleep each night.

Teenagers actually need more sleep than when younger, although usually just the opposite occurs due to school, homework and social pressures. Researchers have shown the natural biological rhythms of teenagers shift to later bedtimes and waking up correspondingly later as well. Of course the hours of school prevent sleeping later on most days, and some sleep doctors have recommended that these ideally be changed to accommodate teens’ natural patterns. Yet parents and teachers are reluctant to change a well-known routine with children of different ages all being on the same schedule.

Sleep Disturbances

Some young children thought to have attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) turn out to have an underlying sleep disorder. In these cases, stimulant drugs given to ADHD children make the situation worse instead of better.

Of the many kinds of children’s sleep disorders, probably most familiar is the occurrence of nightmares. This peaks between the ages of 4 and 8 and go away of their own accord. Less common are ‘night terrors’, in which children awake with a scream and have a much increased pulse, rapid breathing and may be sweating. Nightmares occur in any part of the night a child is in REM sleep, while true night terrors usually occur in the first two hours of sleep.

Bedwetting is a sleep disturbance that sometimes runs in families. If a child begins bedwetting after a year or more of controlling their bladder, it may be associated with some type of stress or anxiety in the child’s life. It may be part of an overall behavioral regression some young children exhibit when a new sibling arrives or during a parental divorce. Parents need to determine the cause of the stress and address it as directly as possible, something that may benefit from the help of a pediatrician or child therapist. Sleepwalking is not uncommon in children, especially in the ages of 8 to 12. Despite eyes being open, the sleepwalker usually has incoherent speech and a lack of response to others’ words. The child should be guided back to bed without any special attempt to awaken them.

For these and other sleep problems, a few general approaches are recommended as first steps:

  • A child should have as regular a bedtime and waking schedule as possible and an adequate amount of vigorous play during the day.
  • Exposure to TV and computers should be minimal in the hour or two before bedtime.
  • There should be some type of relaxing pre-bedtime routine, such as reading a story.

In rare cases a child may develop obstructive sleep apnea, usually more common in adults. This is exacerbated by sleeping on one’s back and is typically accompanied by the child’s nighttime snoring and daytime sleepiness. Removal of a child’s tonsils and adenoids can be helpful if a trustworthy pediatrician thinks it is warranted. Otherwise, use of a continuous positive air pressure (CPAP) device is often needed. Because it can lead to other health problems down the road, sleep apnea at any age is a condition best not ignored!

SleepDisorders.com is designed to link sleep disorder sufferers to local sleep doctors and sleep centers. In addition to our directory of sleep doctors, you can find informational articles related to your unique sleep disorder.

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