The benefits of a good night’s sleep

Pediatrician explains what fatigue can do to us and our kids

Monday, April 04, 2016 6:59PM

Sleep. Many kids go to great lengths to fight and avoid it. Most adults wish they could get an extra hour or two. Like food and water, sleep is a necessity the human body cannot do without. Sleep rejuvenates us, giving us the energy to get through the day.

Chronic fatigue and sleep debt affect the brain’s ability to learn and retain new material. Sleep in children (and to a lesser extent in adults) allows the brain to build and strengthen the connections between the two hemispheres of the brain. Shortened sleep duration in the first three years of life is associated with increased hyperactivity and impulsivity, and lower cognitive performance on neurodevelopmental testing at six years of life, a problem scientists now think may persist throughout life. REM sleep, in which newborns spend almost half their time while sleeping, actively converts waking experiences into lasting memories.

The quantity of sleep a person needs and the times in which a person gets it changes throughout childhood. Newborns sleep 16 to 20 hours a day. Toddlers (ages 1-3) typically sleep 12 hours, including a nap of one to three hours. By middle childhood (ages 6 to 12), the average child needs 10 to 11 hours of sleep at night.

Adolescents generally need nine hours of sleep. Once adolescents hit puberty, they typically experience a phase delay in sleep, causing them to go to bed later and subsequently wake later the next day. This same circadian rhythm shifts forward again as we age, which is why many adults go to bed earlier and wake earlier as they age.

The consequences of inadequate sleep are numerous. In infants and toddlers, it leads to fussiness, tantrums, poor impulse control, and may affect the developing brain. In older children and adults, sleep deprivation increases the risk of many illnesses (hypertension, stroke, and coronary artery disease) and probably weakens the immune system.

It contributes to a litany of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, impulsivity, decreased motivation, and increased vulnerability to stress. Fatigue is associated with increased risk taking behaviors, such as drinking and using illicit drugs. Finally, a multitude of studies have linked decreased sleep with obesity.

Getting adequate sleep requires good sleep hygiene. For all ages, this requires a good sleep environment, a room that is dark, quiet, and slightly cool. It also requires a relaxing bedtime routine – just before bed is not the best time to start an argument or rough-house. Electronic devices should be avoided for at least 60 minutes before sleep, and should not be in a child’s room during sleep. Having a TV, tablet, or phone in the room, as well as increased total screen time over the course of the day, has been associated with decreased total sleep and increased difficulty falling asleep.

Good sleep hygiene means consistent bedtimes as well as consistent wake up times. Monday mornings are much more difficult if the weekend is spent going to bed later and waking up later than is normally done during the week. Finally, 30 to 60 minutes of active play or exercise goes a long way to help with a good night’s sleep.

In summary, sleep is just as important to the human condition as food and water. Make sure that you and your children are doing everything you can to maximize your success with sleep.

It might just make you smarter, and it will certainly make you more productive in your day and more pleasant to be around.


Dr. Greg Kriebel is a pediatrician with Monadnock Community Hospital.