The Importance of Sleep on Brain Development 

The Importance of Sleep on Brain Development
The Importance of Sleep on Brain Development

The importance of sleep on brain development has been qualified in a recent research article. Researchers at the University of Maryland used scans to conclude that children who get less than nine hours of sleep each night develop less brain matter. This was linked to a risk of serious mental health and memory problems later in life. We have written before about what good sleep habits for children look like, this article focus on the longer term effects. We also look at how to manage phones in the bedroom.

Researchers discovered that children aged 9 and 10 who slept for fewer than the recommended 9 to 12 hours per night had less brain matter and less volume in specific parts of the brain compared to their classmates who slept for the appropriate amount. The areas affected are linked to mental health, intelligence, and memory. The effects appear to be long-lasting, which suggests that bad sleeping habits when a person is young could cause problems for the rest of their lives. This would be similar to the physical developmental damage done to a child who is malnourished not being able to be completely reversed as an adult. This shows, for the first time, the importance of sleep on physical brain development, rather than the effects just being due to ‘tiredness’. I would also include hydration in this so we have an article on making sure that your child drinks enough.

Details of the Study Into the Importance of Sleep on Brain Development 

Information was gathered from 8,300 nine- or ten-year-old children. Half of the children said they got the recommended nine to twelve hours of sleep each night, and the other half said they didn’t. Each person in one half was paired with someone in the other half based on their gender, whether or not they were going through puberty, their socioeconomic class, and other things that could affect their brains. 

Researchers looked at Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, medical records, and surveys filled out by each participant to see what effect a good night’s sleep alone could have on the brain. The participants were then checked on again two years later, when they were 11 or 12 years old, to see what kind of long-term effects of the importance of sleep on brain development.

They observed that children who slept fewer than nine hours a night at the start of the study had less grey matter or less volume in specific areas of the brain that govern attention, memory, and inhibition. 

These differences were still there after two years, which is a worrying sign that people who don’t get enough sleep may be hurting themselves in the long run. During the two years of follow-up, children who were getting enough sleep saw a slight drop in how much sleep they got each day, but it was still within a good range for the most part. 

This builds on a earlier study in 2010 that people with less grey matter are more likely to have memory problems, heart problems, and problems making decisions. The new link here is the size of impact sleep has on this and therefore the importance of sleep on brain development.

How Does This Relate to Our Children? 

I am often sent articles like this. Being from a scientific background myself I do find them interesting. However, I always think about how this information can be used practically. When children have homework to accomplish as well as extracurricular activities to participate in after school, it can be difficult for them to get enough sleep. Balancing these extracurricular activities is important and being able to occasionally say no. This information will help us ensure that we balance the demands on our children. In particular in discussions about staying up late for no real benefit. My children are fully aware of how their happiness and ability to cope changes with tiredness. However, the long term nature of this is new. When we discuss staying up late for ‘one more show’, or screen addiction in general, this will make these discussions more informed. Good discipline always requires and education angle as well. So being able to talk about brain development as well as happiness shows I am not just an ogre, but looking out for them. This is something that then they can take into their life as they become more independent as appreciate the importance of sleep.