Children, Sleep, and Equity 

By Carol Ripple, PhD, Senior Advisor, Pajama Program | July 12, 2023

From where I live in the city, this Fourth of July was a loud one. The firecrackers and rockets went well into the early morning hours, and I woke up wondering how I could reclaim the sleep I’d lost. It wasn’t just the noise—the loudest explosions were startling, and I felt relieved knowing it was just one night.  

Because we at Pajama Program are always thinking about sleep, I realize that too many children and families deal with sleep disruptions every night. And, knowing that the children and families who face the most disrupted sleep are those who face a whole range of life challenges, we recognize sleep as a matter of social justice. That might sound odd: sleep is free and available to everyone, isn’t it? Let’s look at why our mission is to promote equitable access to sleep for children.  

According to the Cambridge Essential American English Dictionary, sleep is “being in the state of rest when your eyes are  closed, your body is not active, and your mind is unconscious.” Healthy sleep is high-quality (i.e., quiet, peaceful, uninterrupted) and of the right duration (number of hours) for the sleeper’s age. Healthy sleep is foundational to children’s development and well-being: it is essential for physical health and growth, brain development, memory and learning, and regulating emotions. Children’s inactive bodies do their most important growing during sleep, and their unconscious minds are actively consolidating learning from all that happened the day before. Children who get the healthy sleep they need can learn, love, play, and thrive.  

The children and families who face the most disrupted sleep are those who face a whole range of life challenges, making sleep a matter of social justice.

Pajama Program’s offerings are designed to reach children exposed to adversity typically associated with poverty, housing insecurity, or familial instability. Compounding considerable life stresses, children facing adversity often do not get the restorative sleep they need for their growth, well-being, and resilience. Although Pajama Program believes healthy sleep is an inherent right for all children (see our Good Night Bill of Rights), not all children can claim that right.  

Why do children exposed to adversity get less sleep? There is no single answer.  

Children exposed to trauma are often hypervigilant so they can’t fall asleep, then may face nightmares and night terrors (think of a child in foster care). Caregivers with low incomes are more likely to work swing shifts, making bedtime routines hard to stick to (consider working a night shift at the hospital). Substandard housing makes it hard to control the sleep environment (that is, a sleeping space that is cool, dark, and quiet), which is central to sleep health. Neighborhood crime makes children feel unsafe (imagine hearing gunshots in the night). Structural racism affects sleep health in Black populations because it shapes the social and physical environment underlying neighborhood segregation.  

This is why we frame sleep as a matter of social justice, which we define as equal rights and equitable opportunities for all. As noted by sleep expert and Pajama Program Good Night Advisory Council member Lauren Hale, PhD, “the distribution of sufficient restorative sleep across the population favors those with more social and economic advantages.”  

How can we make a difference?  

We can raise awareness of the social injustices that deprive children of the sleep they need. We can support caregivers with information and tools to make bedtime better for their children and for themselves. We can acknowledge that adversity and trauma harm our children’s ability to overcome challenges, and we can start by understanding sleep is foundational to their well-being. And we can support efforts to change the social conditions underlying unequal access to one of the most basic needs of all: sleep. 

To learn more about Pajama Program’s work to promote equitable access to healthy sleep or to get involved with the organization, please visit our website: 

Help us support good nights for good days for all children, everywhere.