The United States is currently facing a national public health problem, and it isn’t a newly-discovered disease—it is the lack of a good night’s sleep.
he Center for Disease Control reports that an estimated 50-70 million US adults have sleep or wakefulness disorder. What is even more concerning is the number of children who are not sleeping soundly at night. According to Dr. Jodi Mindell, Associate Director of the Sleep
Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, between 20-30 percent of children have experienced sleep problems. For the children that Pajama Program serves, those who are living in unstable situations, the problem is even more critical.
That’s why the third step on Pajama Program’s 24-hour Good Day Loop is Peaceful, Restful Sleep—not just going to bed happy, but actually receiving quality rest overnight.
Today, children sleep at least an hour less than they did 30 years ago. A child’s restful sleep is being impacted by such things as fractured households with parents working later, emotional stress due to uncertainties of the day, a child not having a trusted loving adult to come home to or tuck them in at bedtime, a lack of any consistent bedtime rituals that help us all wind down at the end of the day like brushing our teeth or being read a bedtime story, and technology is impacting our restful sleep with many children falling asleep with their phones or other electronic device.
Sleep is good for us. That much we know—but what specifically happens to children when they lay their heads down at night? There are numerous physical benefits, such as increased immune systems, muscle and tissue growth, and weight maintenance. Beyond physical health, though, there are profound psychological implications for a good night’s sleep.
Sleep is connected to mental clarity and positive learning.
Quality sleep is just as important for children’s minds as it is for their bodies. Sleep is vital for brain functions such as learning new information and storing long-term memories; moreover, researchers have found that the brain actually cleanses itself overnight.
Researchers, along with concerned parents, are becoming more interested in the link between good sleep and student performance in school—and rightly so. A child with low energy and increased stress levels is not going to focus on classwork; a child in a constant state of stress is primarily focused on survival. Unmanaged stress diminishes learning capacity and intellectual abilities. Tel Aviv University research shows that missing just one hour of sleep can reduce a child’s cognitive abilities by almost two years the following day.
The rise in children’s ADHD cases may have a connection to children not getting enough Zs at night. “The symptoms of sleep-deprivation and ADHD, including impulsivity and distractibility, mirror each other almost exactly,” explains Dr. Judith Owens, Director of Sleep Medicine at Children’s National Medical Center. A study in Taiwan, which surveyed almost 2,500 children aged 6 to 15, confirmed that children with sleep problems are more likely to demonstrate hyper, impulsive, and aggressive behavior.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Reut Gruber, lead author of a study on sleep efficiency, says poor sleep particularly affects executive brain functions required for mathematics and languages, such as memory, planning, and focus. Moreover, a relaxed, rested mind is essential for active imagination and creativity (if you’re curious, check out the book Rest by Silicon Valley consultant Alex Pang). Simply put, children cannot imagine a better future when they are half asleep during the day.
Sleep is essential for emotional balance and well-being.
Since Daniel Goleman kicked off the emotional intelligence (“EQ”) movement in 1996, people have increasingly recognized that developing children’s EQ is just as, if not more, significant than training their IQ. Emotional intelligence speaks to our capacity for empathy, self-awareness, communication, and connection.
How exactly does sleep relate to our emotional health? We may be familiar with the phrase “woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” referring to someone who is cranky and disagreeable; however, the impact of poor sleep is more serious than one might think.
Researchers at UC Berkeley conducted a study which evidenced how sleep deprivation lowers EQ. People who are sleep deprived have an impaired ability to recognize other people’s emotional cues, especially facial expressions. They found that tired participants were less likely to notice facial changes that shifted from threatening to nonthreatening. When people are unable to identify emotions, they are more likely to struggle with relating to others and making positive decisions. This directly applies to children who are learning to socialize with others and navigate their own emotions.
Inadequate sleep not only causes negative emotions for children but also alters their positive experiences. According to Candice Alfano, lead psychologist for a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, sleepy children are less happy while engaged in positive emotional activities and are less likely to remember details from these experiences. Their research shows how children who do not sleep well at night are more likely to develop anxiety and depression disorders in later years.
Pajama Program supports peaceful, restful sleep for children not to simply improve their physical health or academic performance but, even more importantly, to support their emotional wellness. All children need the basics of life: food, warmth, shelter, and clothing. But they also need to feel loved and secure in order to thrive.
Ultimately, a quality night’s sleep sets children up with the energy, optimism, and focus to learn and grow—physically, intellectually, and creatively, not to mention supporting them emotionally—to their greatest potential. Our role at Pajama Program is to work together to support children in need of sleep through sharing our love and giving the unconditional gifts of pajamas and books.