Tidbit to Think About
Sleep. The activity that has the most importance to our health and the one we value the least as a society; we value productivity over sleep and project our poor sleep habits onto our children. We underestimate the amount of sleep our children need as well as the quality of their sleep.
The following information comes from the book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker. I recommend this book for all parents; it is eye-opening to the ramifications of decreased sleep (in any sense of that word) and provides an insight into how the brain and body function with and without sleep.
The Main Facts about Sleep:
We engage in two types of sleep and need both of them equally: NREM and REM sleep. NREM sleep mostly occurs during the first half of the night; its purpose is to reflect and move memories and events stored in short-term memory to long-term memory. REM sleep mostly occurs during the second half of the night; its purpose is to regenerate and act out experiences and memories to better prepare us for understanding and engaging in the world around us. The problem with achieving high-quality sleep occurs when a child takes a long time to fall asleep and/or wakes up in the middle of the night and stays awake for a while. Both of these events reduce the hours a child engages in NREM sleep or REM sleep, which (over time) deprives the brain of the specific purpose that each type of sleep achieves.
The Importance of REM Sleep:
REM sleep is important because it is used to strengthen neural connections. After week 23 in utero, a fetus mostly engages in REM sleep and then during the last two weeks before birth, the fetus engages in 12 hours of REM sleep per day. This is the most REM sleep a person will ever get. This REM sleep is directly related to developmental growth and neural connections and pathways that ramp up during this stage of development. In a study in the 1990s, rat pups were deprived of REM sleep. Interestingly, “assembly work on the brain” stopped, which means that the cerebral cortex stopped growing and only resumed once REM sleep was allowed again. However, the rats’ brains never caught up with those rats who were never deprived of REM sleep. REM sleep is interesting to think about as it relates to babies who are born prematurely and babies who have poor sleep habits.
REM Sleep and Autism:
Dr. Walker discusses REM sleep as it relates to autism. One of the main purposes of REM sleep is to strengthen emotional and relational connections. In a child diagnosed with autism, there is an abnormal number of synapses in that child’s brain during REM sleep AND the circadian rhythm of that child has a flatter “profile of melatonin” across a 24-hour period. Further, children with autism typically engage in about 30% less REM sleep than their neurotypical peers. This means that children with autism have a weaker innate impulse to be either awake or asleep, and it also means that they do not receive as much of the type of sleep that is directly related to social-emotional thinking and understanding.
Here is what Dr. Walker recommends to improve both your sleep and your child’s:
1. 7 or more hours of sleep provides an increased immune response
2. Teenagers are programmed to go to bed later and wake up later (essentially needing school start times to be pushed back)
3. Diets high in sugars and carbohydrates lead to decreased NREM sleep and more awakenings throughout the night
4. The blue light of electronics decreases melatonin production, making it harder to fall asleep
5. Expose yourself to bright light in the morning hours
1. Alcohol decreases sleep quality for at least three days after consumption
2. Prescription sleeping pills do not improve sleep quality and can have deleterious health effects
3. Caffeine can stay present in your body for up to 10 hours
4. Alarm clock “wake-ups” shock the heart and increase adrenaline doses
5. Exercise should be avoided 2-3 hours before falling asleep
6. Do not lie in bed awake; get up and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy
7. Avoid direct sunlight to the eyes in the afternoon and evening hours (wear sunglasses and a hat)
Preparing for sleep:
1. Darken the bedroom as much as possible (use blackout shades if necessary)
2. Remove or cover all gadgets and electronic lights, including screens of iPads and phones
3. Dim the lights in the house during the evening hours to help your body start the production of melatonin
4. Set the bedroom temperature between 56 and 68 degrees
5. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day
6. Take a hot bath, shower, or at the very least splash water on your face and hands to cool your internal temperature in preparation for falling asleep
This book is a great read, extremely helpful, and available on Audible. Dr. Walker goes through many more facts and scenarios that are relevant to our current lifestyle as it relates to sleep.