Curious Parents

Why Sleepless Nights Affect Kids More Than Adults

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Everyone need a good night's sleep, but recent research shows that sleep deprivation affects kids' brains differently than it affects adults' brains.

Why It's Important

Just when you think your little one has finally settled down to sleep, you hear little footsteps pitter-pattering down the hallway. Bad dreams, yet again, which means they'll surely be cranky tomorrow. But a bad mood isn't the only effect a lack of sleep has on a child. It could be causing harm to their brain.

Not only will earlier bedtimes cure your child's crankiness, but more sleep has been associated with such positive effects as a decreased likelihood of adolescent obesity. How much sleep does your little one need, anyway? According to the National Sleep Foundation, newborns up to three months old need both daytime and nighttime sleep, from 14 to 17 hours per day. That amount decreases over time so that when a child turns six, they need around 10 hours of nightly sleep. A new study shows that sleeping less than this could pose long-term negative effects on children.

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Why It's Relevant

Scientists have long known that lack of sleep in adults can affect important aspects of their lives, including short-term memory, attention span, and even math performance and word fluency. These processes are controlled by the frontal region of the brain. Until a September 2016 study, however, little was known about whether sleep deprivation affected children differently than adults.

The study stabilized the sleep patterns of 13 kids (aged 5–13) for at least five days, then cut their sleep by half via reading stories and playing games until way past their bedtime. Scans showed that the brains of the sleep-deprived children showed more slow-wave sleep activity in the back, parieto-occipital area—the one associated with spatial reasoning and attention. This area also contains more myelin, a protective structure that helps nerve impulses travel between brain cells. The researchers think the extra activity means that this region is especially susceptible to sleep deprivation. Interestingly, this back region is very different than the frontal regions affected in sleep-deprived adults.

While these results could indicate serious consequences for children, scientists conclude that more research needs to be done in order to make larger claims about the effects of sleep deprivation on brain development. Even so, they do agree that everyone needs the proper amount of sleep to help the brain perform at its best.

Kids Need Their Sleep. Here's Why.

Hannah Chow, a Loyola pediatrician, talks about setting limits so that kids get enough sleep.

Why Do We Have To Sleep?

Sleep might be the single-most important behavior that humans and other animals experience.

Sleep Loss Hurts Your Genes

A lack of sleep can do a whole lot more than make you sleepy. Here's why sleep deprivation leads to things like stress and illness.

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