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Sleep is important to children's brain health and cognitive function

Experts recommend that elementary-aged children get at least nine hours of sleep per night

Sleeping child
Photo (c) Ray Kachatorian - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine explored the importance of kids getting enough sleep. According to their findings, young kids who aren’t getting at least nine hours of sleep each night may struggle with long-term brain and cognitive function. 

“We found that children who had insufficient sleep, less than nine hours per night, at the beginning of the study had less gray matter or smaller volume in certain areas of the brain responsible for attention, memory, and inhibition control compared to those with healthy sleep habits,” said researcher Ze Wang, Ph.D. “These differences persisted after two years, a concerning finding that suggests long-term harm for those who do not get enough sleep.” 

Health risks related to poor sleep

The researchers analyzed data from over 8,300 kids between the ages of nine and 10 who were enrolled in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study. The children’s parents completed surveys about their children’s sleeping habits when the study began and two years later. The team used that data and also evaluated the kids’ medical records and brain scans. 

Ultimately, not getting enough sleep was evident from both brain health and cognitive function standpoints. Kids who weren’t reaching nine hours of sleep on a nightly basis had less gray matter in certain parts of the brain. Over time, this can be detrimental to important cognitive skills. 

The study showed that insufficient sleep increased the risk of anxiety, depression, poor overall well-being, and impulsive behaviors. The researchers also found that a lack of sleep was linked with poorer outcomes in key areas like intelligence and memory. 

By the study’s two-year follow-up mark, these findings held up. Children who were struggling to sleep at least nine hours each night were still getting poor sleep each night. While children who were sleeping well when the study began started sleeping less as the study progressed, the team explained that this is expected as kids enter their teenage years. 

Knowing that there are long-term risks associated with poor sleep, the researchers hope parents recognize how important it is that their children regularly get a good night's sleep. 

“Sleep can often be overlooked during busy childhood days filled with homework and extracurricular activities. Now we see how detrimental that can be to a child’s development,” said researcher Dr. E. Albert Reece.

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