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The Importance of Sleep in Child Development in the 21st Century 


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The importance of sleep in child development is a big topic today because of the emerging challenges created by technology and urbanization! Our busy work schedules and overcrowded environment, in addition to misuse of cellular phones, computers, gaming consoles, and electric light, have badly damaged our sleep/wake cycle and biological clock.

We have even gone ahead to justify our sleeplessness by arguing that we function better with only a few hours of sleep! The truth is, 98 percent of adults are biologically hardwired to sleep for 7 to 9 hours. Period. The very few who claim to only need a few hours of sleep are probably carriers of hDEC2 mutated genes and are truly an annoying bunch of fellows!

The symptoms of insufficient sleep are evident when we experience varying levels of dizziness the day after. Besides, we are moody, forgetful, and unable to focus at work. We are forced to micro-sleep every other few hours now that we have become victims of ‘sleep debt!’

In the long run, according to WebMD, we develop serious memory lapses, weakened immunity, and are constantly depressed. We are also predisposed to medical conditions such as high blood pressure, heart diseases, diabetes, obesity, and ultimately, lower sex drive. Anyone that sleeps consistently for the required hours – 8 and above, should never get the urge to sleep during the day unless it is caused by extreme fatigue, sickness, and related conditions.

Sleep is critical in the achievement of childhood development milestones and ensures that children grow into healthy adults. It is fundamental for body growth, rejuvenation, and cognitive development. In order to ensure children sleep better, the amount of noise, light, temperature, technology use, and electromagnetic fields in the bedroom should be regulated.

Besides sleep, other important basics in child development include,

  • physical wellness
  • a safe and healthy environment
  • nutrient-rich food
  • loving home and family

The Role of Melatonin and Human Growth Hormones in Sleep

A conducive sleeping atmosphere at night facilitates the natural release of two hormones [melatonin and human growth hormone] to enhance sleep-wake routines, and supercharge body growth and repair.

1. Melatonin for Sleep-Wake Cycle Regulation:

First is the Melatonin hormone, which is released by the pineal gland, a tiny endocrine gland located in the brain. Melatonin is important in regulating the sleep-wake cycle, to make the body feel sleepy. This hormone is only released when a child goes to sleep and the bedroom is dark enough. For this reason, we must turn off the lights in the bedroom when children go to sleep.

2. Human Growth Hormone for Body Growth:

Second is the Human Growth Hormone (HGH) which is released by the pituitary gland to help the body grow. Just like Melatonin, this hormone is released at night, in the course of deep and uninterrupted sleep. The hormone facilitates height and weight growth in children.

Deprivation of sufficient sleep is known to hijack childhood development milestones and alter brain activity. The following emotional and health side effects can happen in the short and long run, as a result of insufficient sleep:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • diabetes
  • body burnout
  • allergies
  • obesity
  • mood swings
  • heart complications
  • weakened immunity
  • vulnerability to infection

Importance of Sleep in the 21st Century

The matter of sleep is receiving particular attention in the 21st Century because of the negative influence of technology devices on adults and children. In particular, are mobile electronic gadgets, especially the smartphone. Matters are also made worse when we shove these devices willingly in the hands of children to keep them busy.

A seemingly good hack, I know, but a negative one. It is wreaking havoc on the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle and turning us into zombies of sorts. The circadian rhythm, which is actually our internal timekeeper has simply lost the battle with many of us.

Electronic gadgets will eat up the bulk of children’s daytime hours because of their addictive nature. This will make it hard for them to sleep. Then the innocent souls will develop plenty of sleeping disorders during the night. The mind will be occupied and haunted by the thoughts of gadgets and related visualizations they watch on TV!

It is also worth noting the negative side effects that come with these gadgets. In particular are the electromagnetic fields (EMF) emissions, capable of altering body growth and inducing other health complications.

So, how much sleep should children get?

There is no magic number of hours a person should sleep. The human body responds differently in varying conditions and states of mind.

While some individuals take a short while to reach the REM sleep stage, or whatever satisfactory state of sleep it is, others struggle, and may probably need more hours of sleep. According to WebMD, the following can serve as general sleeping guidelines for children up to 18 years.

0 – 114 -16
1 – 312 – 14
3 – 610 – 12
6 – 12 9 – 11
12 – 18 8 – 9

A community of parents at Parent’s Wishlist breaks down the sleeping pattern even further, with a focus on toddlers and infants from 0 to 5 years. They emphasize the importance of consistent sleep, devoid of obstructions, such as nightmares.

Of, course, children may not achieve perfect sleep routines – nobody actually does; but it is a good idea to set a target that is an hour or so to the dot. We should not deprive children of more than 2 hours of recommended sleep on a regular basis. We should spot out anything that interferes with their sleep.

Now, what is the importance of sleep in child development?

1. Immunity Against Germs Via the T Cells

Plenty of germs exist in the environment and other surfaces and are either helpful or infectious if they find their way inside the body of the growing child. The fact is, germs are littered everywhere. They are present on the table, chair, washroom, washing sponge, and a lot of other surfaces – all in the house.

The proliferation of tech devices has also brought germs even closer to us through the smudge on the smartphone screen. Our hands/fingers touch all kinds of surfaces containing germs. These include surfaces with fecal matter in the washroom and everything else understandably dirty. Thereafter we touch our cell phone screens with the same dirty fingers. We readily share these devices with everyone and spread our germs!

The smartphone is a conducive living surface for germs owing to the ever-present warm temperature. Germs survive in this condition for seven days and more.

The more we share and touch our smartphones at home, the more we help spread the germs present on screen surfaces.

smartphone touchscreen
The smartphone touchscreen is a conducive environment for germ acquisition and retention

Germs lead to numerous health conditions such as cold and flu. To treat them, we are always running around for quick fixes such as antibiotics, and other medications.

These may work or not but should be used as the last resort.

The best medicine the doctor will always prescribe in the event of a cold is to let the child sleep. Yes, sleep and let sleep.

When a child sleeps sufficiently at night, the body generates a strong sense of immunity with the help of the Helper T cells. These are known to fight off germ invasions using the B and T cells.

In the event of a germ attack, the T cells quickly attach themselves onto affected cells through a sticky protein known as integrin. The protein subsequently destroys the invading bacteria or virus.

Deprivation of sleep interferes with the production and activities of T cells which come under attack from estrogen hormones.

2. Importance of Sleep Body for Growth Spurts

Good and persistent sleep leads to the release of the Human Growth Hormone (HGH) which supercharges the physical growth of a child. Sleep in addition to healthy eating and physical activity are crucial requirements for overall body development and growth.

HGH is released in the brain by the pituitary gland to the bloodstream during sleep. The release leads to increased cell reproduction to promote body growth. The hormone actually stimulates organs such as the liver to facilitate muscle and borne expansion.

This enables weight and height gains. Growth spurts should be evident in children when they eat more than usual and are sleeping for longer speels into the morning hours. Michelle Lampl, MD, Ph.D. from Emory University in Atlanta, says this in regards to growth spurts,

… growth spurts not only occur during sleep but are significantly influenced by sleep [and] longer sleep [equals] greater growth in body length,


3. Mental Growth

Sufficient sleep is good for the brain in many ways. First, it gives it time enough to process and optimize information absorbed in the course of the day.

Poor sleep is associated with depression and anxiety which does not prepare our children for the cognitive demands in life.

Children who sleep for optimal hours,

  • stay awake during the day
  • grasp concepts better
  • have sharpened attention
  • have lower mental stress
  • are better in memory retention

The reverse is true about children who sleep for less than the recommended hours.

4. Brain Detoxification

Every so often we rush to purchase over-the-counter drugs to detoxify our bodies. Or else we drink lots of warm water in the morning to get the job done. That is fine, but by doing so, we ignore the very basic hack that will help us detoxify the body without swallowing a tablet.

Sleep is the best detoxification trick out there but largely overlooked. It works with children just as it does with adults. Sleep detoxifies both the brain and the physical body.

A study by the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) Center for Translational Neuromedicine, discovered that sleep is a very crucial ingredient in brain detoxification, in particular.

It noted that the brain reduces by 60% during sleep which basically creates room for waste removal. The process is done through a process called the glymphatic system.

According to the lead author at URMC,

… the brain has different functional states when asleep and when awake. In fact, the restorative nature of sleep appears to be the result of the active clearance of the by-products of neural activity that accumulate during wakefulness.

Maiken Nedergaard, M.D., D.M.Sc.

In addition, sleep washes away the build-up of toxins in the brain which is known to cause illnesses such as Alzheimer’s.

The Final Note

The complex hustle and bustle of life usually take a toll on every adult today, that we hardly sleep through the recommended hours. Our biological clock for the sleep/wake cycle is simply bad!

By making children understand the importance of sleep from very early, and by letting them achieve valuable sleep, we are preparing them for this eventuality when they grow up. It does not hurt to let them sleep at night for as long as their heads can stay down.

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