Posted on December 14, 2015
My maternal gauge of daily family welfare is based on a pretty simple recipe. I count as a win the days my kids play hard, learn something, eat well, feel loved, and sleep a lot. I’ll admit an uptick in warm fuzzy feelings in the presence of clean fingernails and sibling camaraderie, but you can’t have it all.
Of course, there are plenty of times when that basic formula isn’t met as robustly as I’d like. And there are moments when I let it go to pot by forgetting to hug the crew as much as I should, carting them around as I plug through mindless errands, or yanking them out of bed with the promise of “breakfast” in the car as we peel out of the driveway, late for one thing or another. These flashes of sloppy parenting plague us all, and though I beat myself up over them, I also know that my resilient kids will of course survive.
In the age of overparenting, it is critical that we learn to distinguish between parenting mishaps that are simply real life moments, versus the ones that can cause actual harm. One less-than-forgiving trend I have come to recognize as dangerous under my roof is the slow build-up of ‘off’ days (the ones that explode into true messiness) that are the direct and ugly result of someone’s…or perhaps everyone’s…lack of sleep.
Just in case any lingering doubt remained as to the utterly vital role of sleep in kids’ well being, this recent Huffington Post article recounting the findings presented at the SLEEP 2015 conference will easily blow that to bits. A joint meeting of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society, the SLEEP conference convenes the nation’s heaviest hitting scientists and researchers on the topic.
What is it that happens when kids don’t sleep enough? We all know the immediate and obvious influences, often seen in our kitchens and backseats: moodiness, lack of energy, inability to focus, change in appetite, general unrest. The deeper hazards of consistent lack of sleep are even less pretty: depleted immunity, increased risk of diabetes and obesity, shorter attention spans (often resulting in misdiagnoses of ADHD), and in teens, an increased risk of alcohol + drug use as well as susceptibility to car accidents. Yikes.
So why is this issue so paramount these days? Studies show that kids are, on average, sleeping an hour less every night than they used to 30 years ago. That is a pretty significant shift. In their fascinating and myth shattering book, Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children, journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merriam recount that an increased presence of technology in the home, the parental trend toward overscheduling, and the ever-expanding homework load all contribute to the problem. In short, our kids are too stimulated, too busy, and too overworked. Sound familiar? These are precisely the reasons we, as parents, cite for not being as rested as we’d like.
What’s fascinating is that sleep draws such a giant amount of parental focus, anxiety, and care in the first one or two years of a child’s life. But as little ones transition to school age, it can be easy for parents to assume that if they lose sleep during the week, they will make it up later. After all, isn’t that what adults do? Research now indicates that we’re assuming incorrectly. While growing kids, dosed with love, nutrition, stimulation, and play are indeed incredibly resilient and adaptable, chronic fatigue is not a lifestyle element they can just adapt to.
In large part, this stems from the fact that important developmental work happens in kids’ bodies at night and there is no opportunity to make that up later. Most notably, growth hormone – essential for tissue and muscle development – is produced overnight. In addition, a child’s brain is continually growing and evolving for the first two decades of his life.
We mothers are terrific at sounding the anxiety alarm for all sorts of unnecessary reasons in our quest for parental perfection. At the end of the day, our kids will survive being teased a few times, not quite comprehending subtraction as soon others might, or wearing those dirty pants day after day. But a continued lack of sleep really isn’t OK for children. Their growing brains and bodies require a consistency we need to insist upon, far beyond the swaddling years.