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.
Examples of Apparent Harm:
A child’s diet is insufficient in iron and he develops symptoms of fatigue, weakness, and pale skin (iron deficiency anemia) which becomes apparent to parents and caretakers.
A child becomes very sleep deprived after holiday travel and develops acute and obvious behavioral and mood deterioration.
Examples of Hidden Harm:
A child’s diet is mildly insufficient in calcium, but she appears to grow fine and enjoy sports but many years later, as an adult, develops soft bones (osteoporosis) because of insufficient calcium during the bone growing years. Another example might be repeated mild banging of the head from sports causing, many years later, CTE symptoms. Moderate or severe head trauma in teens might show adverse effects later in life. According to a 2021 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The prevalence of concussions in adolescents has increased 20% to 25% over the past 5 years!
A child becomes chronically mildly or moderately sleep deprived from late bedtimes and maybe, years later, develops academic or mental health problems.
Although we can precisely measure how much iron and calcium is needed for children, at different ages, to stay healthy, unfortunately, we do not have similar measurements for sleep duration or sleep quality. That’s why I said “maybe” above. So, a child might appear to perfectly normal, and not show the harm from insufficient calcium or unhealthy sleep during the early growing years. However, when older, perhaps years later, the insufficient calcium or unhealthy sleep adversely affects the bones and the brain.
Question: Can a sleep-deprived child appear to be unaffected?
Answer: Superficially, yes. But the deeper you look, the more likely deficits will be discovered.
One study examined the effects of a single night of experimental sleep restriction (5 hours of sleep allowed) or 3 nights of sleep restriction (7 hours of sleep allowed) in a group of children between 10 and 14 years old. The researchers noted that there were impairments in verbal creativity, abstract thinking and concept formation, and complex problem solving. These higher cognitive abilities appear to be essential for academic performance and success. In contrast, there were no deficits in rote performance or less complex memory and learning tasks.
This highlights an important point: Our children can and do perform quite well even when mildly sleep-deprived—as long as they are not challenged to write or be creative. Mild sleep deprivation is often trivialized or overlooked because more routine memorization tasks and athletic performances are successfully accomplished. The ability to maintain routine performance despite being sleepy is familiar to every adult who sometimes gets very tired but nevertheless is able to perform the routine aspects of his or her job fairly well.
My interpretation of this study is that mild chronic sleepiness in infants and young children impairs cognitive development, but this does not necessarily become apparent until the child is much older and challenged by more complex tasks. Of course, cognitive development starts in babies, not at 10–14 years of age, but the deficits from sleep deprivation remain hidden in young children. When children are younger, the challenges they face are at a much lower level, and these chronically sleep-deprived children may still do well with spelling, writing, reading, and simple arithmetic. Later, when they are older, more demanding academic challenges unmask the cognitive deficits lurking there.
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