Sleep not only makes young children happier to be around, but it also makes your little ones healthier people as well. Getting enough sleep -- in the form of daytime naps, but especially at night -- is vital for ensuring young children grow at a normal rate.
Sleep and Growth Hormone
Human growth hormone, abbreviated HGH, is a key component for healthy growth in children of all ages. This hormone stimulates and coordinates the growth of all parts of the body -- from bones to muscles to nerves. Released by the pituitary gland into the bloodstream, this hormone is found at higher levels in children who are still actively growing than adults. While proper nutrition and regular physical activity play a role in HGH production, sleep is the single biggest factor. HGH is released throughout the day, but is released in its highest amounts during slow wave sleep, which happens when a child enters a phase of deep sleep. While a single night of poor sleep won't impact growth, chronic sleep problems in young children do.
Children with Low HGH Levels
A 2011 study published in the journal "Neuroendocrinology" tracked the sleep patterns of children with growth hormone deficiency, or GHD, versus children who are growing at a normal rate. In the study, the research team from the Bambino Gesu Children's Hospital in Rome, Italy, found that children with GHD got substantially less sleep -- and lower quality sleep -- than their normally growing peers. GHD impairs a child's immune system, making the child more vulnerable to illness, as well as weakens the strength of the child's heart and lungs.
Other Effects of Sleep Deprivation
HGH isn't the only hormone affected by chronic sleep deprivation in young children; most notably, the hormones insulin and cortisol are also affected. Insulin helps regulate the amount of sugar in the bloodstream. Young children who go without sufficient sleep for long periods of time have abnormally low levels of insulin, which can lead to diabetes and weight management problems. Cortisol is a hormone associated with stress. A study by researchers at Westminster University in London found individuals who got more sleep had lower levels of this stress hormone in their bloodstreams. Additionally, sleep deprivation impacts gross and fine motor skill development in young child, and can lead to behavioral problems as well.
The key to avoiding sleep deprivation in your child is to know how much sleep she needs. Sleep guidelines vary depending on a child's age. Infants need the most sleep. Newborns need as much as 18 hours a day, while a one-year-old needs 13 to 14 hours. Toddlers require even less sleep; 10 to 13 hours a day, on average. Preschoolers need about the same amount of sleep as they did when they were toddlers, roughly 10 to 12 hours daily. Newborns get their sleep in the form of several naps throughout the day and one period of extended sleep at night; as children age, they move away from naps and get all their required sleep at night.