Do we really need to think about sleep where babies and toddlers are concerned? Won't they just sleep when they are tired? Is sleep really worth all this trouble? Does it even matter?
Sleep is like food. Looking at two adults, you can't really see the difference between one who grew up eating a healthy diet and one whose diet was less than optimal (unless they are obese or otherwise overtly unhealthy). But, internally, there can be differences. Nutrition, food, sleep, genetics, stress, environmental factors, physical exercise etc are all pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that come together to determine a person’s overall physical and mental health.
Somehow, parents have always paid close attention to nutrition, with a lot of fuss about whether tummies are full or not, whether baby should have breastmilk or formula, what should be cooked, who should do the cooking and what ingredients should be used. That kind of mindfulness, attention and prioritization is often missing in the arena of sleep, even though babies and toddlers spend more than half their lives doing this!
In fact, sleep is absolutely critical to a baby’s development and here are some of the areas it impacts:
1. Growth – the growth hormone is primarily secreted during deep sleep (and usually in the hours of sleep before midnight, one of the reasons an early bedtime is recommended).
2. The heart – sleep helps to regulate blood glucose as well as the amount of cortisol or stress hormones being produced, hence protecting against vascular damage and diabetes.
3. Obesity – sleep deprivation impacts the production of the hormone, leptin, which signals to our body that we are full. Without this hormone, we continue to eat. Over time, kids who do not get enough sleep can become obese. Also, tired kids crave high-fat foods (like adults) and they also tend to be more sedentary – all things that lead to unhealthy weight gain.
4. Immunity – proteins called cytokines are produced during sleep, which help us to fight infection, illness and stress. Too little sleep appears to impact the number of cytokines on hand. And it's been found that adults who sleep fewer than seven hours per night are almost three times more likely to develop a cold when exposed to that virus than those who sleep eight or more hours. While there's little data on young children, studies of teens have found that reported bouts of illness declined with longer nightly sleep.
5. Attention span – Studies have shown that children who consistently sleep fewer than ten hours a night before age 3 are three times more likely to have hyperactivity and impulsivity problems by age 6. For school-age kids, research has shown that adding as little as 27 minutes of extra sleep per night makes it easier for them to manage their moods and impulses so they can focus on schoolwork.
6. Ability to learn – children make neural connections and store what they have learned through the day in their brains while they are sleeping at night. Naps play an extremely important role in learning. The type of sleep during naps and nighttime is actually different and the type of learning that takes place is also different.
There is a lot of research ongoing that is showing the myriad ways in which sleep affects human beings.
If you think about it, babies and young children spend 12-16 hours sleeping. Adults also spend one third of their day sleeping.
If sleep did not have a major biological purpose, this would be a big goof-up on the part of evolution!
I hope this makes it apparent why responsive parenting and prioritizing baby sleep is important for us all.