Sleep has always been, and is likely to continue to be, a bit of a mystery. From an evolutionary standpoint, it seems like something that we should have abandoned a few hundred thousand years ago. The fact that we fall into a near unconscious state for a third of our day, every day, leaving us vulnerable to whatever horrifying dangers we faced in the early days of civilization, makes me wonder how we ever made it this far as a species.
This strongly suggests that whatever sleep does for us, it’s obviously vital to our health and well-being. If it wasn’t, those individuals who needed less sleep would have risen to the top of the gene pool a long time ago, and those that thrived on a lot of sleep would have been, well, eaten probably.
At present, the scientific community hasn’t been able to tell us exactly why we sleep, but there is a consensus among researchers (and new mothers) that adequate sleep is beneficial in a variety of areas.
I’m sure we have all experienced how much more difficult it is to focus on information when we’re running on too little sleep. Absorbing the information is only half the battle…well, technically only a third!
Learning and memory are made up of three functions: acquisition, consolidation, and recall. Basically, you need to receive information, store it, and access it later when needed (such as during an exam, in conversation, etc).
Acquisition and recall can really only occur when you are awake and alert: you need to be awake to take in information and to utilise it. But, in order for memories to be stored, neural connections within the brain need to be strengthened. This is referred to as consolidation and can only occur during sleep. Thus, adequate sleep every day is important for learning and memory.
You can put time and effort into learning and understanding information. Without sleep, that information won’t be properly stored (consolidated) in the brain.
Think of the storage within your brain like a big filing cabinet. During consolidation, the brain files these memories in a specific draw in the filing cabinet, allowing easy retrieval later. If the memory isn’t stored correctly (in the right draw), the brain isn’t able to find that information when you need it and you are left blank.
Our little ones have a lot to learn even before school. In fact, learning for the first 18-20 years of a person’s life could be looked at as a primary responsibility. Considering how much information kids need to retain, a healthy sleep schedule is vital.
We all know that when we don’t get enough sleep, we get short-tempered and irritable. Studies have linked even partial sleep deprivation with feelings of stress, anger, sadness, and mental exhaustion.
This isn’t exactly new information. We’re all aware that we get emotional in very negative ways when we’re running on too little sleep, but why? Have you ever wondered why sleep doesn’t have the same effect as…say…alcohol? Why doesn’t sleep deprivation cause us to start telling people we love them or develop overconfidence in our singing abilities?
Again, it’s a bit of a mystery, but some researchers have suggested that sleep deprivation stimulates activity in the amygdala. That’s the little almond-shaped part of the brain that’s responsible for feelings of anger and fear, among other things. These amped-up feelings can lead to an overall sense of stress and hostility toward others. This can explain the short fuse and why you possibly reacted a tad stronger than you intended when your lovely little cherub asked you for a cookie for the umpteenth time by 9:00AM!
We can see how getting enough sleep is essential to learning and emotional well-being, but what about health benefits? Well, short of eating and breathing, you would be hard-pressed to find anything with more health benefits than getting enough sleep.
“Sleep services all aspects of our body in one way or another; molecular, energy balance, as well as intellectual function, alertness and mood’, says Dr. Merrill Mitler, a sleep expert and neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health. “Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies”.
Adults who regularly get between 7-9 hours of sleep see significantly lower rates of obesity, high blood pressure, stroke, infections, depression, diabetes, inflammation, hypertension, heart disease, heart attacks, and heart failure. They also report better performance at work and take fewer sick days than people who typically sleep less than 7 hours a night.
So, there’s no question that sleep, while it remains mysterious, is defined as an essential part of a healthy, happy lifestyle, right across the lifespan.
Sleep for your family
Your baby or child needs sleep even more than you do. Those little bodies may look like they’re idle when they sleep, but there’s an absolute frenzy of work going on behind the scenes. Growth hormones are being secreted to help baby gain weight and shoot up. Cytokines are being produced to fight off infections and produce antibodies. In fact, all kinds of miraculous, intricate systems are at work laying the foundation for your baby’s growth and development. This will continue through childhood and into adolescence, provided they’re given the opportunity to do so.
Nature does the heavy lifting, all your little one has to do is close their eyes and go to sleep. Sounds like a great deal to me!
Sleep benefits everyone, hence, it’s important that when you have a baby or child in the house everyone is provided with the opportunity to get the required amount of sleep they need. If you’re a parent enforcing a strict bedtime so your child can get a good 11-12 hour sleep overnight, or you put sleep strategies in place to support your baby in learning to sleep through the night, I absolutely support and applaud you!
This is not done because you’re selfish, or you enjoy sleeping without interruption, it is simply because you understand that every member of your family needs adequate sleep for the reasons I’ve listed above. It could also be because you know babies who don’t sleep, become children who don’t sleep, onto adolescents who don’t sleep, until…you get my point.
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