As we gain a better understanding of the importance of sleep, it makes sense for us to ensure that our children—who are likely to benefit the most—understand, prioritize, and get the sleep their minds and bodies need. While the critical importance and the need for sleep in children may seem obvious, many of our children fail to get the sleep they need for optimal physical and psychological development and functioning.
Why Sleep Is So Important for Children
While sleep is important throughout life, it may be critically important in the formative years of childhood. The rate of learning in childhood is greater than in any other stage of life. In recent years, researchers have confirmed the critical importance of sleep in a child’s growth and development. Without adequate sleep, children are:
- less mentally alert
- less motivated
- less resilient
- more inattentive
- prone to accidents and injury
When sleep is compromised, memory consolidation, school performance, and the capacity to learn are all diminished. Without enough sleep, children can feel stressed, have a poor outlook, and engage in less physical activity. Sleep is also involved in the release of growth hormone, cellular repair, metabolism, and healthy weight management. Insufficient sleep negatively impacts the immune system, which makes a child more susceptible to illness as well as to acute and chronic health problems.
Reading, Writing, and Sleep Education
For years, the U.S. public school system has taught basic nutrition and provided physical activity education to students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Unfortunately, basic instruction in sleep health and wellness has not received the same attention. This oversight is unfortunate given that proper food choices and adequate physical activity are severely undermined by a lack of sleep.
Children and Sleep: The Research Is In
In a 2015 editorial in the journal Sleep Health, Dr. Max Hirshkowitz pointed out, “To improve sleep health, we must refocus our lens. Awareness and education are the key. Teaching sleep health in grade school, along with physical and dental health, is one step.” Research underscores the need for school-based sleep education and sleep health literacy for the well-being of our nation’s children:
- Sufficient sleep in childhood may help prevent obesity.
- Sleep education can improve academic performance.
- Even minor sleep loss impacts a child’s brain processing.
- Sleeping less than 8 hours increases risk of accidental falls in children.
- An adequate bedtime schedule could help prevent depression in children.
- Screen time robs a child of the sleep they need for growth and development.
- Regular bedtimes during early childhood influences children’s behavior.
- Sleep problems in children may lead to substance abuse.
Sleep: As Important as the ABCs
Healthy childhood growth and development depends on sufficient and consistent quality sleep. Parents, educators, school nurses, administrators, and community leaders should collaborate to ensure all children are engaged in a healthy sleep lifestyle. This can be achieved through sleep education in the classroom—ideally from preschool to college.
If we can raise awareness and educate all children—even our youngest—about the importance of sleep, we can provide a generation with the benefits that come from sufficient sleep to optimize their potential and overall quality of life. Prioritizing sleep for each and every child is critical throughout childhood, and the classroom is a perfect place to start. Achieving sleep health literacy in our classrooms will help children better understand sleep, thereby empowering them to adopt a healthy sleep lifestyle to ensure their optimal performance and functioning. After all, no child’s health—or potential—is expendable.
Authors:Terry Cralle, RN, and W. David Brown, PhD
Terry Cralle, RN, MS, CPHQ, is a certified clinical sleep educator based in Washington, DC. She is the coauthor of Snoozby and the Great Big Bedtime Battle, the first nonfiction book directly messaging the benefits of sufficient sleep to young children, and Sleeping Your Way to the Top, the ultimate guide to success through sufficient sleep. As the cofounder of a four-bed sleep disorders center in Virginia and a nationally recognized sleep health and wellness consultant, educator, and advocate, her work in the field of sleep medicine has ranged from patient care to clinical research and continuing education for nurses. Terry is a highly sought-after consultant and speaker on the subject of sleep health and wellness for schools, corporations, hospitals, and community organizations, as well as for the hospitality, travel, and bedding industries. Terry is a certified professional in healthcare quality and holds bachelor degrees in Sociology and Nursing as well as a Master’s degree in Healthcare Management.