Every animal sleeps. Birds sleep attached to their branches, bats sleep upside down, whales sleep half their brains at a time–all of us need to catch some Z’s. Science doesn’t have a complete understanding of why we sleep, but we do have some ideas and we know people run into problems if they do not get enough.
Humans sleep in cycles from light sleep into heavy and then into dreams. Adults cycle about four times per night; infants cycle about every hour (that’s why they can wake up every hour). Each stage has a function: if you don’t get enough time in each stage you will not feel rested, even if you spent enough hours horizontal.
During the first stage, or “N1”, you are in drowsy sleep. You are not completely out, but neither are you completely aware of your environment. If someone sat beside you to read a book you would not notice; if that person said your name you would.
During N2 you loose all conscious awareness; N3 brings you into deep sleep.
Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is the fourth stage. During REM sleep you dream, and your voluntary muscles become atonic, or mostly paralyzed, so you don’t whack yourself in the head.
Then you cycle through the phases again. Most deep sleep is early in the night; most REM sleep is later toward morning. (That’s why kids mostly wet the bed early in the night.)
If you get enough sleep you feel energetic during the day, your brain works and your emotions are under control.
The opposite happens if you, or your children, are sleep deprived. If your children do not get enough sleep they are tired, they cannot concentrate and they can be irritable.
Lack of sleep affects their working memory: the memory they employ constantly to reason and function. Without an effective working memory they will find it harder to make decisions. It will be difficult to focus and learn.
Sleep is necessary to organize, consolidate and solidify what your children have learned during the day, so it can be there the next day when they need it. There is even some evidence that REM sleep is necessary for your child’s brain to develop properly in the first place.
Many of these symptoms duplicate those of ADD, depression, and Oppositional Disorder. Sleep deprivation also affects the function of your immune system, your ability to heal, your growth hormone levels and your ability to lose weight–important stuff.
So how do you know if your children are getting enough sleep? Look at them during the day. If they are sleeping adequately they will wake up easily, perhaps without an alarm. They will be awake during the day, not sleepy, not dosing off when they are still. They will be less irritable. They will be able to concentrate, focus and learn.
If they are not getting enough sleep, getting more is a priority. Make sure there is enough time allotted in their busy schedules, and try to make bedtime the time of day that they are actually sleepy. Every person has a circadian rhythm that includes a time in the evening when they get drowsy. That time should be bedtime. It should be approximately the same every day, to avoid permanent jet lag.
During the day make sure they eat healthy whole foods. No caffeine please, no tobacco exposure (yes I mean you!) and watch that sugar intake. Also, they need at least twenty minutes of aerobic exercise every day to wash those stress chemicals out of their bodies.
Quiet things down about two hours before bedtime: no TV, no vigorous exercise. Turn on some quiet music, play a board game, or read a book. Lower the light level. Give your youngster a warm bath and read a bedtime story. Don’t even think of having a TV in the bedroom! Make their bedroom comfortable, quiet and a little cool.
Enough sleep is essential if you want a child who is not moody and has a functioning brain and energized body. If you are thinking your munchkin has a behavioral problem like ADD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder or depression, consider first whether he or she is getting enough sleep. If not, change what you need to to ensure that they do. Get that TV out of the bedroom, give them a healthy diet and enough exercise, and don’t expose him to cigarettes. Quiet things down two hours before bed. And get some sleep.