EXPERIENCE AND MEMORY
For newborns, virtually every experience is brand new. Research conducted in 2012 indicates that this is why newborns sleep up to 18 hours of the day; they are taking in so much information that their brains need to shut down and encode that information for later reference.
While we sleep, our brains transfer knowledge from what is considered implicit learning to explicit learning, or from short term memory to long term memory. This essentially changes the storage mechanism of the learning so that it can be referenced more easily by the entire brain.
To study the effect of sleep on learning, researchers tested the memories of both children and adults, first after a night of sleep, and then after a day awake. They found two very conclusive results; those who slept before the testing retained much more information than those who had not slept, and the children dramatically outperformed the adults in the testing. This supports both the idea that a child's brain is optimized for rapid learning, and that sleep is absolutely crucial to making that learning happen.
Researchers have also used EEGs to watch brain patterns change during sleep. What they've found is that during sleep, children's brains work hard to connect the two halves of the brain together through the corpus callosum, a thick, fibrous band that connects the two brain hemispheres together. Many learning disabilities, such as non-verbal learning disorder, specifically relate to the two hemispheres not working well together; it is highly possible that plenty of healthy sleep early on could help mitigate the symptoms of these learning disabilities or disorders.
Russell Foster is a circadian neuroscientist who gave a TED talk about how much sleep we need, both as children and as adults. We highly recommend this talk to give you more perspective on the importance of sleep!
There are two distinct phases of sleep that we have studied. The first is REM sleep, commonly known as dreaming sleep, and non-REM sleep, when we're not dreaming.
During REM sleep, our brains are very active, although our bodies are still. Although researchers have never determined exactly what purpose dreams serve, we believe that they have to do with processing memories and compiling learning of tasks.
Non-REM sleep is sometimes referred to as "quiet" sleep. Blood flow to our muscles is increased and our energy is restored. This is a time when our bodies work to heal the regular wear and tear of daily life.
Remember that we sleep approximately 1 hour for every 2 that we're awake. By the time we're 60, we should have slept almost 20 years, and spent 5 of those years dreaming. We are unlike other mammals in this way; other mammals have more REM sleep as they age, whereas kids spent much more time in REM sleep, and less time in other phases.
Sleep is so important to children's growth that at least one paper has called adequate sleep one of the three most important things that parents can do to help their children grow up happy and healthy.
Newborns generally sleep very irregularly, as their sleep-wake cycle, or circadian rhythms, take time to develop. By three months, however, most babies have settled into a regular sleep pattern. At this point, parents should start paying attention to their children's sleep. While there are many different healthy sleep patterns, here are some signs that could warn parents that their child's sleep is following an unhealthy pattern.
• Baby has pauses and interruptions in breathing after the first few months of life.
• Baby struggles to go to sleep or seems to resist sleep.
• Baby wakes up sweaty, even when their clothing is appropriate for the room's temperature.
• Baby snores persistently.
As your child ages, any of these signs would continue to be warning signs of unhealthy sleep. Also, as children grow into toddlers and preschoolers, parents should watch for:
• Regularly resisting bedtime beyond what seems to be age appropriate.
• Difficulty remaining asleep once they've laid down.
• Behavior problems and aggressive behavior.
• Daytime tiredness.
• Bedwetting that reappears after at least six months dry.
Kids who aren't getting enough sleep suffer developmentally. They may struggle to learn and retain new information, struggle to engage socially with their peers, siblings, or other adults, and be too tired to focus clearly. Even when they can focus, their interrupted sleep means that their brains may struggle to process information into long-term memory. Sometimes doctors and schools suggest a diagnosis of ADHD or autism when in fact, the child needs to be treated for obstructive sleep apnea or another sleep disorder.
HOW PRANA CAN HELP
Even very young children can be diagnosed and treated for sleep disorders. If you're concerned that your child isn't sleeping well, the best thing to do is to schedule a complete sleep evaluation with a pediatric sleep specialist. Too often, these problems get brushed off as "kids being kids," and the entire family suffers along with the child's poor sleep. Take a step towards better sleep for your entire family and schedule a sleep evaluation today.