How much should your child sleep? The surprising answer!
Sleep is a topic that concerns parents worldwide, especially when it comes to their children. Many parents worry about whether their children are getting enough sleep or sleeping too much. A new study published on July 25 sheds light on the importance of sleep for children’s cognitive development. It reveals that some children are more efficient at consolidating information during sleep, resulting in fewer sleep periods. On the other hand, children with smaller vocabularies and weaker cognitive abilities require more breaks and more sleep time.
Sleep and cognitive development
The study, conducted during the 2020 lockdown, analyzed 463 infants aged between eight months and three years. Researchers surveyed parents about their children’s sleep habits, cognitive abilities, and language development. They also took into account socioeconomic factors, screen time, and outdoor activities.
The research team suggests that reducing sleep periods for children who sleep more will not improve their brain development. Instead, children should be allowed to take breaks and sleep as frequently and as much as they need. Dr. Teodora Gliga, the lead researcher, stated, “There is a lot of parental anxiety related to sleep. Parents worry that their children do not take as many sleep breaks as expected for their age – or sleep too frequently and too much.”
Individual sleep needs
The study shows that how often a child sleeps reflects their individual cognitive needs. Some children are more efficient at consolidating information during sleep, resulting in fewer sleep breaks. Children with smaller vocabularies or lower scores on a measure of executive function take more sleep breaks.
Dr. Gliga added, “Young children naturally take breaks to sleep as much as they need, and they should be allowed to do exactly what their bodies tell them.” The lockdown provided an opportunity to study the intrinsic sleep needs of children since, when children are in care, they rarely take as many sleep breaks as they need.
Age and sleep patterns
The research also found that the negative association between vocabulary and sleep breaks was stronger in older children. While most parents reported that their children’s sleep was not affected by the lockdown, parents from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to report worsening sleep.
Increased screen time and decreased outdoor activities during the lockdown did not explain the differences in children’s sleep. Previous work suggested that caregivers should encourage frequent sleep breaks in preschoolers. “Our findings suggest that children have different sleep needs – some children may give up sleep breaks earlier because they no longer need them. Others may still need to take sleep breaks after the age of three,” added the researcher.
Implications for parents and educators
Understanding the importance of sleep for children’s cognitive development can help parents make informed decisions regarding their child’s sleep routine. It is essential to recognize that each child has unique sleep needs and allowing them to sleep according to their individual requirements can support overall cognitive development.
In the UK, nurseries enrolling children aged three to five years do not provide for sleep periods. Educators and caregivers should use the child’s mental age rather than chronological age to determine their sleep needs.
So, how much should your child sleep? The answer is, it depends. Each child has unique sleep needs, and it is crucial to pay attention to their individual requirements. Some children may need fewer sleep breaks, while others may require more. By allowing children to sleep according to their own bodies’ signals, we can support their cognitive development. Remember, sleep is an essential part of a healthy and thriving child!