If you have not already done so, please read Blog Posts 1 through 5 that describe how sleep is important and beneficial. I will post specific information for parents and children based on my book, “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.” Please do not be put off by my book’s length. This is a reference book. Read only the topic of interest to you.
Speculation: Does Chronic and Severe Unhealthy Sleep in Childhood Cause Brain Damage?
Here are some facts that suggest this topic should be taken seriously by parents:
Long-term Sleep Disturbances in Children: A Cause of Neuronal Loss (2010): “Sleep loss adversely effects pineal melatonin production which causes disturbance of circadian physiology of cells, organs, neurochemicals, neuroprotective and other metabolic functions. The most convincing evidence for permanent damage resulting from sleep loss comes from cellular studies in which animal experiments are indispensable. There is increasing evidence that even brief periods of total sleep loss may permanently imprint on neuronal plasticity. For example, during critical developmental periods the adverse effects of sleep loss on the visual system have been clearly shown. Sleep deprivation, depending on the severity, leads to genetic, cellular, metabolic, electrical, neurotransmitter, and other changes. Prolonged sleep loss causes cellular stress and when the defense mechanisms are no longer able to cope, permanent neuronal damage may occur. The effects of cellular stress may be cumulative throughout life. Melatonin, which has powerful neuroprotective properties, has a central role in sleep deprivation since during sleep disturbances melatonin production is often reduced and/or disturbed”.
Childhood Sleep Disturbances and White Matter Microstructure in Preadolescence (2019): “A recent systematic review suggested that inadequate sleep may be associated with differences in brain function and structures; for example, short sleep duration and smaller hippocampal grey matter occur in the brain of healthy 11-year-old children. Our research group previously showed that children with more sleep disturbances from age 2 years onwards had smaller gray matter volumes and thinner prefrontal cortex at 7 years. These imaging studies of sleep have primarily focused on the macrostructural properties of the brain (for example, brain volume). This study explored the association between sleep problems during childhood and the brain’s white matter microstructure in preadolescence. Childhood sleep problems at 1.5, 2, and 5 years of age were associated with less white matter microstructure integrity at age 10 years. Our results imply that childhood sleep disturbances have long-term associations with white matter development. The rate of myelination of white matter is particularly high in the first postnatal years. Our results show that early neurodevelopment may be a period of particular vulnerability to sleep problems. Impaired sleep should be early recognized and warrants early sleep intervention programs. Next to improving sleep, these interventions might lead to better neurodevelopmental outcomes.”
A 2021 study of over 11,000 9-11-years-old children examined sleep duration, psychiatric problems, cognitive measures, and brain scans. They observed:
A 2022 study of 161 children at about 4.5, 10, 12, 13, 17, and 19 years of age included structural brain imaging examining the volume of gray matter within the brain and assessments of sleep and depression. “Although sleep disturbances alone did not predict gray matter volume/trajectories, preschool sleep and depression symptoms interacted to predict later total gray matter volume. The current findings highlight the critical role of exploring sleep as a predictor of neurodevelopment. The findings underscore the importance of identifying and addressing sleep disturbances in early childhood in order to prevent possible neurodevelopment effects. The inclusion of sleep as a treatment focus may be a way of both curbing depression and improving neurodevelopmental outcomes.”
In a 2022 preprint paper, by studying the electrical activity of infants’ brains (EEGs) at 6 and 12 months of age, they observed that “Adequate sleep is critical for the development and facilitates the maturation of neurophysiological circuitries at the basis of cognitive and behavioral function.” That is “day-to-day sleep habits determine the outcome of brain physiology.” In particular, early bedtimes were associated with increased neural connectivity. Blog Post 131.
Healthy sleep produces healthy brain development just as calcium and Vitamin D produces healthy bones. Unhealthy sleep directly weakens the brain just as inadequate calcium and Vitamin D causes soft bones. While it is true that the association between sleep quality and brain health is not widely appreciated (Blog Post 38), the fact remains that parents, by how they do or do not help their child sleep well, are responsible for creating brain health or brain damage.
Your child needs a healthy body. A healthy body needs healthy food.
Your child needs a healthy brain. A healthy brain needs healthy sleep.
Use sleep as a tool to sharpen the brain.
Please do not worry if now and then your child gets a little short on sleep but is well rested most of the time. But I would worry if sleep problems are persistent and severe.
Further reading for child and baby sleep advice:
‘What a Parent Can Do’
Benefits from healthy sleep. Blog Post 127
Sleep and cognition in your child. Blog Post 121
Early bedtimes are important. Blog Post 123