New Research about Childhood Sleep (Article)

Research is proving what we all instinctively know; children need adequate sleep. Two new studies suggest that too little sleep in children, younger than age seven years, can have a negative aspect on all facets of their young lives. Scientists and physicians are still trying to sort out what happens to a child’s brain during sleep but one thing seems certain, the function of sleep is vital. For many children, life in the 21st century is go, go, go and time for children to sleep seems not to be the priority it once was.   Ask any pediatrician, sleep problems have become common with the advent of screens in children’s rooms, access to disturbing media content, children living in multiple households, and a general rise in anxiety experienced by children.


Now for the conclusions of the recently published research. The first study referenced found that the overall amount of sleep a child obtained was related to their overall quality of life. Lead author Christopher A. Magee of the University of Wollongong in Australia says, “Sleep is important for a multitude of reasons, and can influence health and well-being and cognitive functioning.” While genetics do play a role in our ability to sleep, Magee says his study suggests that environmental and social factors hold sway in sleeping ability and habits, too. In order to test these factors’ role in sleep in young children, he used data from almost 3,000 children to monitor the kids’ health and quality of life at four points from birth to age seven. The children’s parents completed questionnaires rating their child’s quality of life, including their child’s sleeping habits and difficulties, as well as social issues, such as difficulty socializing at school. Based on this data, children were divided into four groups: typical sleepers, persistent short sleepers, initially short sleepers, and poor sleepers. The typical sleep pattern saw children sleeping around 14 hours as an infant, and gradually sleeping less until age seven, when they slept on average around 11 hours a night. Children in the other categories slept less than typical sleepers, except the poor sleepers, who actually only slept 10 hours as an infant but gradually started sleeping more as they aged to seven years. Though it was rare, less than three percent of children, the poor sleepers pattern showed significantly lower physical, emotional, and social scores on the quality of life scale than typical sleepers. Though this study does not directly address the reasons for differences in sleep, the conclusion is clear: kids who sleep more and with regularity have a higher quality of life.


The second study looked at sleep issues as a chronic issue, tracking 1,000 children from six months to seven years old to determine the relationship between sleep and physical health, specifically body fat. The study’s findings are astounding; kids who slept less than average for their age were more than twice as likely to be obese than kids who rarely or never had issues sleeping. Dr. Elsie M. Taveras, director of Pediatric Population Health Management at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who worked on this study, says, “Two times the odds of obesity for any risk factor for obesity is very rare,” so sleep really is an overwhelmingly important factor in physical health of children.


Modern research validates what your great grandma’s wisdom that her children needed enough sleep. Structured bedtimes that provide enough quiet restful sleep without the intrusion of electronics and screens seems to be best for children today, just as it was 100 years ago. Though this is a relatively new area of research, the implications are far reaching. Too little sleep as a child is associated with a lower quality of life in childhood and poorer health outcomes, things that no one wants for their children. Let’s make good sleep a priority for your children.


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Written collaboratively by Carson Blaylock and Paul Smolen MD