Getting enough sleep is important for a young child for many reasons, from restoring energy to building brain connections — not to mention giving Mom and Dad a needed break. But science is showing that sleep also fuels physical growth.
The science of growing
Growth is a complex process that requires several hormones to stimulate various biological events in the blood, organs, muscles, and bones.
A protein hormone secreted by the pituitary gland called growth hormone (or “human growth hormone”) is a key player in these events. Several factors affect its production, including nutrition, stress, and exercise. In young children, though, the most important factor is sleep.
Growth hormone is released throughout the day. But for kids, the most intense period of release is shortly after the beginning of deep sleep.
How much sleep do they need?
Kindergartners need about 10 to 12 1/2 hours of sleep per night (with naps declining and eventually disappearing around age 5), and older elementary age kids need 9 1/2 to 11 1/2 hours a night. Sleep needs are somewhat individual, with some kids requiring slightly less or more than their peers.
Without adequate sleep, growth problems — mainly slowed or stunted growth — can result. Growth hormone production can also be disrupted in kids with certain physical sleep problems, such as obstructive sleep apnea.
More than your child’s height can be affected by a shortage of sleep. Some kids fail to produce enough growth hormone naturally, and a lack of sleep makes the problem worse. It can lead to a condition known as growth hormone deficiency that can affect heart or lung strength or immune system function. (It’s treatable with a supplementary hormone.)
Kids who don’t get enough sleep show other changes in the levels of hormones circulating in their body, too. Hormones that regulate hunger and appetite can be affected, causing a child to overeat and have a preference for high-calorie carbs. What’s more, a shortage of sleep can affect the way the body metabolizes these foods, triggering insulin resistance, which is linked to type 2 diabetes.
A lack of sleep at night can also affect motor skills and concentration during the day, leading to more accidents and behavioral problems, and poor performance at school.
Ensuring a good night’s sleep
Most kids need more sleep than their parents think.
Signs that your child may not be getting enough rest include crankiness or lethargy by day, difficulty concentrating in school or failing grades, and being hard to wake up in the morning.
To help your child get plenty of zzz’s:
- Establish a consistent bedtime. School-age children should be in bed by 8 to 9 p.m. (earlier for the youngest grades and kids who need a lot of sleep).
- Set up a good bedtime routine, which helps signal to your child’s body that it’s time to wind down. This might include giving him a bath or a snack, reading a bedtime story, and talking or singing to him softly while tucking him in.
- Make sure your child’s room is conducive to sleep. It should be dark and quiet.
- Don’t keep a TV and computer in your child’s room.
- Avoid stimulating activity before bedtime.
- Stick to the same timetable and routines for bedtime on weekends and vacations that you follow during the week. A variation once in a while won’t cause long-term disruptions, but erratic bedtimes can lead to poor sleep habits and sleep deprivation.
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