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The Impact of Sleep on a Developing Brain


Especially for students in America, the culmination of Labor Day Weekend usually marks the unofficial end of summer, even if the calendar says we have until late September before the fall season begins. With school likely back in session for most students in the United States, parents everywhere may be faced with groggy, sleepy-eyed kiddos whose morning wake-up calls were probably much later during the more relaxed weeks of their summer break from school.

And while it might take some time to reintroduce those healthier sleep and wake habits that we may have allowed our kids to slack on over the summer, new research published in Lancet Child & Adolescent Health indicates how vital this effort is for young brains.

If you've followed me for a while, you likely know what a critical role I (and science) believe sleep plays in the overall health and well-being of the adult human brain. I am convinced that no innate physical ability, athletic training, intellect, or intelligence level can override or wholly compensate for a sleep-deprived brain. To be sure, there are plenty of things we can do to enhance the brain's performance – but most of these efforts will yield subpar results when delivering them to a brain that hasn't received adequate rest.

So, it should come as no surprise that new research from the University of Maryland revealed recently that children between the ages of nine and ten who receive insufficient sleep (less than nine hours per night, on average) were more likely to have mental and behavioral health problems such as stress, impulsive behaviors, depression, anxiety, problems with aggression, and memory and cognitive issues than those children who consistently slept nine hours or more each night.

Of the more than 4,000 children involved in the study, those in the insufficient sleep pattern group had gray matter measurements in some regions of the brain that were smaller than their peers who received sufficient sleep. In those sufficient sleep groups, the gray matter was more extensive in attention, memory, and impulse control than in their sleep-deprived peers. In simpler terms – the kids who got enough sleep had bigger brains than those who didn't. And for the two years that researchers studied these children, the brain differences in the "enough sleep" vs. "not enough sleep" groups persisted.

I know we all want our kids to be healthy, but are we prioritizing sleep in the mix of other healthy behaviors we want our kids to engage in? We want them to eat nutritiously, so we feed them healthy foods. We want them to be physically fit, so we enroll them in sports or encourage exercise. But what do we tell them about sleep? Do your children know that adequate sleep helps their brains grow and learn better? Do they know that getting enough sleep helps them think more clearly and feel happier? These are meaningful conversations to have with your children.

I know bedtime can be a struggle in many homes, especially with the constant onslaught of technology in our faces 24-7. Still, parents' efforts in this area for their children can make a lifetime difference to their growing brains. If your kid wants to get better at just about anything, look at how well and for how long they are sleeping. If this is an area where you need to put some effort in, do it with these simple tips:

  1. Do not allow screens in a child's bedroom and prevent exposure to electronic devices for at least one (ideally two) hours before bedtime.
  2. Observe a consistent bedtime routine, even on the weekends. With young children and adolescents, at least nine hours of sleep is the goal – so back into that number by figuring out what time they'll need to wake up in the morning to be ready for school.
  3. If homework and extracurricular activities make observing an earlier bedtime a challenge, consider splitting homework time between the evening and the following day. You might be surprised that many kids studying for tests do better at retaining information the morning before a test than trying to cram it in the night before. This could very well have to do with the concept that tired brains don't learn or retain information well.
  4. Be a sleep role model. Show your children that you prioritize your sleep hygiene by observing the above habits.

Children today have more pressure placed on them than ever before. I know parents want to help their kids to become the healthiest versions of themselves. With some effort, you can help your kids understand that sleep is just as much a priority for their growth and well-being as diet and exercise.