I’ve just been giving a consultation to a client whose daughter is 7 years old and doesn’t sleep properly. She won’t go to bed easily, gives every reason why she simply can’t stay in bed and then comes downstairs every 20 minutes or so until eventually her mother lies beside her in her bed until she falls asleep. Her mother has no evening to speak of, no time to spend with her husband and her other children are wondering why their sister gets so much attention. The staff at school despair of her, because she falls asleep at her desk, cannot concentrate and finds it hard to make friends.
Her father is threatening to divorce her mother.
This is one reason why sleep is important, but this is the extreme end of the scale.
Apart from the fact that you don’t want to end up sleep-deprived yourself, there are many good reasons why you need to ensure that your baby gets enough sleep. And it isn’t just “getting enough sleep”; it is actually instilling good sleep habits which will last your baby for the rest of his or her life, in the same way you will expect to instil good table manners or personal hygiene.
However, it is helpful to understand why sleep is of such importance.
Several crucial things are happening in a child’s brain and body whilst they are asleep. First of all, they are growing, literally in body and mind. The bodily growth is evident – often happening in fits and starts and almost overnight, it seems. But inside the growing body, other physical developments are taking place and a lack of sleep will inhibit these from happening.
Sleep deprivation has an enormous impact on the balance of hormones in our bodies. Lack of sleep leads to a rise in ghrelin, the hormone which stimulates your appetite. The more the ghrelin rises, the more you feel hungry and the more you eat.
Meanwhile leptin levels fall. Leptin makes you feel full. If you don’t feel full you continue to eat.
Cortisol also rises. This causes hardening of arteries leading to a lack of muscle tone and increased fat storage.
If you take those three points together, you can see how a child lacking sleep will be inclined to obesity.
But in addition to these things, a sleep-deprived child will suffer from a depletion of neuro-transmitters. These are mood stabilisers which control our levels of depression and irritability.
She will be lacking insulin, a crucial growth hormone and her white cell production will fall resulting in low immunity and a propensity to catch colds.
The mental growth is less evident but just as important. Whilst they are asleep children’s brains are assimilating the events of the day, gradually building the jigsaw pieces, which don’t make sense by themselves, into a bigger picture. This picture will have the child at the centre of it, but it will build in subtlety as the child gets older.
Phrases such as “sleeping on a problem” haven’t come about by accident. Whilst our bodies have closed down for the night, our brains are freed up to work on the conundrums of the day.
Finally, a child’s emotional and social development can be inhibited by lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation causes a child to be unable to concentrate; he will not have the patience to share toys; he will not be able to interact socially with his peers; he will lose his temper; he will not have the perseverance to learn new skills.
So if you teach your baby good sleep habits from the very beginning, you are giving him a life skill which will see him through the challenges of childhood and beyond.
My lovely client and her 7 year old daughter have a lot of work to do, but there are plenty of things we can focus on which will make the situation better – we will put these into action and let you know how we get on next time. I’m sure the divorce lawyers won’t be seeing them any time soon!