#5for5 campaign: why sleep is so important for babies and young children to develop

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Adequate sleep has many benefits for children under five (Annie Spratt)

Child nutrition (Early years), Childcare, Early childhood development, ​Learning through play (Early years), Safe pregnancy and birth

To mark Theirworld's new #5for5 film, we look at how good sleep is a vital part of a child's early growth and development.

We all need sleep. But young children need it more than most. By the age of two, most children will have spent more time asleep than awake. 

As a child’s brain is 90% developed by their fifth birthday, these tender years are the most important in its life. Sleep is a vital part of this development and growth.

“Sleep is crucial for young children in terms of cell replenishment, health, wellbeing and brain development,” said Lucy Shrimpton, British sleep expert and author of The Sleep Nanny System. 

“There is so much growing going on in the first years and good sleep supports this development, which is why it’s crucial to keep trying to get it right.”

The first five years of a child’s life are vital – that’s why Theirworld’s #5for5 campaign urges world leaders to invest in early childhood development.

All this week, to mark the launch of a new #5for5 film, we’re looking at the importance of quality care for the under-fives. We’d love you to share our new #5for5 film on Facebook or Twitter.

And please sign our petition below – we’ll present it to leaders at the G20 summit in July.

Although sleep is crucial for babies and young children, it’s not always going to go smoothly.

“Of course, sleep problems are going to occur and that’s why it’s important to get them sorted out – for the whole family,” said Lucy Shrimpton.

“When your sleep is disturbed, it affects your mood, your ability to concentrate, your wellbeing and health. But for children, it’s even more than this because they are growing so rapidly during the early years.”

Research shows sleep is so important that babies in the womb spend 16 to 20 hours per day asleep. Of that time, 60% to 80% is spent in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, also known as active sleep because of the incredible brain activity going on.

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Sleep is crucial in the physical, emotional and behavioural health of children (Laura Lee Moreau)

Andrea Page, of California-based parenting website Little Beet Kids, said: “Newborns spend about 50% of their 16 to 18 hours of daily sleep in REM. The percentage of REM sleep decreases until post-adolescence when it comprises about 25% of adult sleep.”

New research from the University of Colorado and the University Hospital Zurich has claimed that sleep deprivation may damage the way a child’s brain develops.

They measured the brain activity of children whose sleep had been restricted by four hours. Previous studies in adults had shown that sleep deprivation increased deep sleep waves in the front part of the brain.

Similar effects were found in the children but this time at the back and side regions of the brain, those parts involved in planned movements and attention.

The researchers were concerned this could impact on the development of the brain. Neural structures inside the brain change and adapt to the stimulus the brain receives, a concept known as plasticity. The concern is that deep sleep waves could disrupt normal plasticity development.

By six months, many infants sleep through the night and 70% to 80% will do so by nine months. Infants typically sleep nine to 12 hours during the night and take naps of 30 minutes to two hours between one and four times a day – fewer as they reach the age of one. 

“When infants are put to bed drowsy but not asleep, they are more likely to become self-soothers, which enables them to fall asleep independently at bedtime and put themselves back to sleep during the night,” said a spokesman for the American nonprofit The Sleep Foundation.

“Those who have become accustomed to parental assistance at bedtime often become ‘signallers’ and cry for their parents to help them return to sleep during the night. 

“Social and developmental issues can also affect sleep. Secure infants who are attached to their caregiver may have fewer sleep problems – but some may also be reluctant to give up this engagement for sleep.”

Shrimpton is all for getting children to fall asleep on their own and correcting poor sleep patterns. But she does not believe children have to go “cold turkey” for things to change.

“Of course you want to your children to be able to put themselves to sleep,” she said. “But it’s not all or nothing and you don’t have to leave them to cry.

“There are lots of way that you can wean children off relying on a parent soothing them to sleep. And it doesn’t take weeks. A change can be made in less than a week.”

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Sleep is one of the most fundamental requirements for healthy growth (Sleep Nanny UK, http://www.sleepnanny.co.uk/)

Sleep tips from the Sleep Nanny

Get into a good routine. “Take the same steps in the same order – so bath, brush teeth, story and bed. Or whatever you do. But have a consistent wind-down,” said Lucy Shrimpton. 

For young children, aim to have bed-time between 6pm to 8pm – around 7pm is an ideal time if you can.

No screens (tablet, TVs or phones) for a least an hour before the getting ready for bed ritual.

Let children (including babies) put themselves to sleep. This way they learn to self settle. Lucy said: “We wake up around six times a night but it’s momentary and we get back to sleep. Learning to put yourself to sleep is a learned skill. 

“But if your child needs rocked to sleep before you can put them down for the night, try to change this. Just not overnight. Continue with some of the routines and wait till they are drowsy but not completely asleep. Slowly wean them off you putting them to sleep.”

If your child is an early waker, this tends to mean they need more sleep. Lucy says: “This is a prevalent problem and for a child who regularly wakes early, it’s actually a sign of over-tiredness. So parents have to look at things like the bed-time is maybe too late. If they are taking naps, are these good naps? Is the window between naps too long?”

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