“The purpose of sleep lies in the benefits it provides for our survival” 1
We all need sleep otherwise we feel drowsy and unable to cope with life’s normal demands. Lack of sleep effect’s every aspect of our daily lives. This is the same no matter what age you are. We need sleep so our brains can rest. Sleep allows the brain to do its “filing”. When we sleep our brain sorts out and stores information, it can solve problems! Scientists also believe that it is when the brain produces proteins and hormones. If you miss one night’s sleep you might feel irritable the next day, if you miss two night’s sleep you may not be able to think properly or focus. If you miss a number of consecutive nights sleep you may begin to hallucinate. Therefore sleep is vital for every living person to be able to function properly and carry out normal daily tasks.
Deep sleep (Non-REM sleep) restores the body and is vital to remain healthy. It repairs tissues and muscles, boosts your immune system and stimulates growth and development. Light sleep (REM sleep) is very important for your mind. It processes the information you have learned during the day and produces dopamine and serotonin which are feel good chemicals which will help your mood during the day.
When we sleep, we go through a sleep cycle of deep sleep and light sleep. You go from one sleep stage to the next right through the night. Usually when an adult goes to sleep they go into a deep sleep for the first hour or two, then into a light sleep for twenty minutes, back into a deep sleep for 1 hour and then a light sleep for approximately 30 minutes. As the night goes on the amount of time you spend in a deep sleep shortens and the light sleep lengthens.
When babies or young children sleep they spend a lot less time in a deep sleep and more time in a light sleep. According to Dr Richard Ferber there are 4 sleep stages, Awake, REM, Light Non-REM and Deep Non-REM. Newborn children enter REM sleep immediately after falling asleep. By about 3 months of age a babies sleep cycle changes and they enter a non-REM sleep stage before REM sleep as we do as adults.
Richard Ferber in ‘Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems’ suggests a babies sleep cycle is as follows;
A child will go from being awake to a Deep Non-REM sleep within 20 minutes. He/she will remain in a deep Non-REM sleep for approximately 60 to 90 minutes, followed by a brief Light Non-REM sleep for about 10 minutes. He/She will then return to a Deep Non-REM sleep for another hour or so. The child may then awake briefly and return to a Light Non-REM sleep for 30/40 minutes before returning to a brief Deep Non-REM sleep. After this the child will go from REM sleep to Light Non-REM sleep with some brief awakenings for approximately the next 5 hours. In the early morning he/she will return to a Deep Non-REM sleep followed by a brief awakening to a brief REM sleep to brief Light Non-REM sleep until they are finally awake for the day.
Considering Ferbers’ analysis of the baby sleep pattern, it is inevitable that the child can awaken a couple of hours after being put to sleep, with an increasing probability of awakening as night goes on.
Normally problems arise when a child is unable to resettle themselves after a brief awakening when non-REM sleep has been completed. This could be due to the child being hungry, circumstances having being changed after they went to sleep (i.e. not in parents’ arms anymore or their soother falls out), feeling unwell or uncomfortable, etc. Also, when children awake briefly they can talk to themselves or cry for a few moments. If a parent is too quick to respond to these activities the child may become fully aroused and be unable to resettle themselves back to sleep.
When a parent reacts too quickly in these instances, the baby can rapidly learn a negative sleep association of requiring the parents’ presence and not be able to resettle themselves unassisted. The resultant effect is that the parent must constantly tend to the child at every awakening throughout the night.
If these negative sleep associations are not addressed they can last for 3 years or may even lead to a lifetime of sleep problems for the child. It is vitally important that children get sufficient amounts of sleep as sleep deprivation can not only increase temper tantrums and irritability but can also lead to a poor immune system, hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, increased risk of obesity and diabetes and children may be more accident prone or even develop depression.
A child who is not getting a sufficient amount of sleep is not processing the information they are learning during the day as they should. Their memory will most likely be negatively affected. They are unlikely to be as aware of their environment as other children, as they may not be as alert during the day. As lack of sleep also affects hand eye co-ordination their fine motor skills could suffer, this can lead to problems in their confidence and their ability to do things for themselves. In an older child, they may not be interested in physical activities due to fatigue and spend more time on the couch which can in some cases lead to obesity.
Inevitably, the child’s sleep problems will in turn affect the whole family as if the child is waking frequently during the night, his/her parents are also being deprived of sleep. This subsequently can lead to an increased likelihood of moodiness and irritability, depression, poor judgement, marital problems, illness, loss of motivation and in obtuse cases, depression.
As you can see, sleep deprivation has numerous effects on children and their entire family. Therefore, it is vitally important that sleep problems are addressed as soon as possible for all concerned. By analysing the child’s sleep pattern and identifying the child’s sleep pattern and associations. Negative sleep associations should be changed as early as possible so that child does not suffer long-term from the effects of sleep deprivation.
“Sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.” 2
1 – Richard Ferber – Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems
2 – Thomas Dekker, English dramatist (1572-1632).