Sleep deprivation in toddlers

Often in today’s busy world with so many things to get done sleep is the first thing given up to make time. Staying up late to finish work and, getting up early to make time to exercise or commute are pretty common for adults. Sleep is an extremely important part of the bodies natural cycle; it is consistently used as a time of cellular repair and growth and is a time when specific hormones are secreted; a lack of sleep can play havoc with all sorts of bodily functions. Lack of sleep has been found to be causal factor in both the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear reactor accidents, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and a significant amount of traffic accidents. Lack of sleep is linked to heart disease, stroke and diabetes too. Various chemical imbalances have been linked to lack of sleep, visual problems, poor immunity, slow healing, impaired speech, short term memory loss; it is a very, very long list. So if it can have such a big impact on the lives of adults just how detrimental is the impact on children.


  Sleep is already a contentious issues in early childhood; having a baby who sleeps through the night is often seen as a sign of successful parenting, and questions about how long the baby sleeps for are quite often the first asked. There is a huge amount of information about putting babies to sleep and as well as how long they should sleep for.


 However once your baby becomes a toddler things change; toddler’s don’t require the same amount of sleep as babies and this  is also the time when nighttime sleep patterns are established and daytime naps are being outgrown. At this age most children are attending early learning, perhaps going to crèche at the gym maybe enrolled in some play activities and fitting in with the timetable of the adults in their lives.


 With all of this going on it can actually be very easy to miss the signs that your toddler is not getting enough sleep. As adults we tend to slow down when tired but most children react by tending to speed up and often appear to be more active. At this age too children will begin to fight going to sleep and there are often other complicating factors such as screens (which emit blue light which interferes with the bodies sleep hormones) as well as the desire to spend some time together after a day apart instead of just having a meal and putting them to bed.


 “Chronic poor sleep results in daytime tiredness, difficulties with attention, irritability and frustration and difficulty modulating impulses and emotions” (seminar in pediatric neurology March 1996). Actually the symptoms of lack of sleep in children are extremely close to those of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and according to a recent study in the Netherlands a significant number of children with the ADHD diagnosis are in fact sleep deprived and have been misdiagnosed.


  Not getting enough sleep leads to anxiety, less joy and interest and poor problem solving (University of Boulder, Colorado USA 2012). The Netherlands study which involved 35000 children found not only reduced cognition (thinking skills) and poor behaviour but an increased risk of diabetes and obesity. This is an ongoing field of study and it is not yet clear exactly why being tired effect’s the leptin hormone but this is the one that is responsible for obesity and linked closely to the development of diabetes.


 Once at school a tired child will have trouble processing what they have learned and coupled with short term memory issues and possible behavioural problems they will be at risk of falling behind their classmates. In a recent Canadian study it was found that children with reduced sleep are more likely to struggle with verbal creativity, problem solving, regulating their behaviour, and generally score lower on IQ tests, this effect persisted into the primary years. Of great concern a 2007 study found that even after a child’s sleep had improved after the age of three, they still performed poorly against a control group at age six indicating just how long the effects of sleep deprivation can last.


 So how do you tell if your child is getting enough sleep? Well that is not always straightforward, a child who falls asleep immediately and a child who lies awake for a long time could both be sleep deprived; on average it takes twenty minutes to fall asleep so any child falling asleep immediately or lying awake long afterwards could be suffering a sleep deficit. Conditions such as sleep apnea, sleep walking and restless leg syndrome can also interfere with normal sleep patterns.


Establishing a consistent bedtime routine is a good start, remove any screens (television, iPad, phone and computer) from the bedroom and avoid for at least half an hour before bed. Try some quiet activities like reading a story or talking about your day and then go to bed at the same time each night. As a parent myself I know this is the ideal and it is not always possible to achieve; it is however worth it in the long run to make the effort as much as possible. 


After a series of late nights or a hectic schedule make time for your child to catch up, even if it means missing a regular activity like playgroup to allow your to have a chance to rest. Try having some later mornings or earlier bed times until they catch up on some sleep. The average amount of sleep needed by children between the ages of one and five is twelve to thirteen hours so subtracting this from the general wake up time will give you an approximate bedtime.

 If you are having consistent bedtime drama with your children start with a talk to your GP; speaking from experience one toddler’s sleepless antics has a massive knock on effect. Your GP can refer you to agencies who can offer assistance so don’t be afraid to admit that your child isn’t sleeping. Remember the effects of lack of sleep are serious and can be long term and that is  not good for any member of the family .