Sleep literacy: Why understanding good sleep is the first step to getting some!

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When it comes to your child’s sleep, it’s crucial that you, the parent, become the ‘first responder’ rather than waiting for someone else to take on that role. After all, you are the person with the most commitment to your child’s welfare and the greatest insight into their real sleep habits.

This means you need to become ‘sleep literate’.

Understanding the difference between good sleep and bad sleep will help you better understand if there’s a problem. Early recognition means early treatment, and the earlier you tackle these issues, the better.

So, what is good sleep? In this post, I’ll cover why we sleep, how sleep works and how much we need – and give you my simple good sleep formula so you know what you’re really looking for when it comes to evaluating your child’s sleep – and your own.

Why do we sleep?

Sleep plays an important role in the regulation of every system in the body, yes every single one. There are literally thousands of papers to support this assertion. Scientists used to think that the brain went to sleep when we slept. In fact, the opposite is true. New science paints a very different picture about what the brain gets up to during sleep, and it’s akin to magic. It’s called glymphatics.

At night, once asleep, brain cells called glial cells shrink, an extensive network of channels open up and cerebro-spinal fluid runs through, enabling the many vital transactions to occur: the supply of nutrients, clearance of waste and release of hormones, to name a few.

These exchanges occur throughout the phases of sleep and are essential to good brain health.

Sleep 1

Neuroscientist Jeff Iliff describes the glymphatic system as a specialised network of plumbing that organises and facilitates this process. The plumbing system means every tiny corner of the brain can be reached. But the whole thing only happens in the sleeping brain – not when we’re awake.

We need proper sleep every night for the brain to complete its essential ‘cleaning’ and preparation for the following day.

What are the types of sleep?

There are two types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep.

A series of four or five sleep cycles of non-REM and REM sleep occur every night. The first cycle is about 90 minutes and successive cycles last from 100 to 120 minutes. However, babies and toddlers will cycle through non-REM stages to REM more often, depending on the number of hours they sleep.

We need to experience all stages of non-REM and REM sleep to have optimal brain and body restoration.

Waking naturally after at least four full sleep cycles is the best way to ensure that you have had the right amount of sleep, however your full sleep quota is measured over a 24-hour period and includes naps.

Non-REM sleep

Within non-REM, there are four stages of sleep. Stages 1 and 2 are light sleep, while stages 3 and 4 (seen as one combined phase) are deep sleep. In each of these stages there is different brain and body activity, meaning your brain waves, breathing and heart rate all change. You need them all, to fully ‘restore your brain’ ready for the next day.

The full non-REM cycle takes about 90 minutes in adults. The usual sleep cycle progresses through stages 1, 2, 3 and 4, then back to stage 2, then REM sleep kicks in.  Between each full sleep cycle, there’s a brief awakening, but most people are unaware of this as it only lasts seconds before they drift into another sleep cycle.

REM sleep

During REM sleep, dreaming occurs, which is vital for enhancing memory and dealing with emotional or traumatic events. The body is ‘paralysed’ during this stage, except for the breathing muscles – a feature that stops us from acting out vivid dreams.  However, there is still a lot of electrical and chemical activity taking place in your brain, including the removal of toxins, the release of hormones and other chemical exchanges.

Even your dreams are helping you to manage and solve problems, along with resolving emotional issues.

Procedural and spatial memory are also created during REM. Procedural memory recalls routine actions, tasks, and skills like brushing teeth and getting dressed, while spatial memory recalls how things are laid out in space: how to get to the shops from your home, or how to go to the back door of your house.

The brain’s oxygen consumption and high-energy consumption is very high during REM – even higher than when awake and working on a complex problem. Your breathing rate increases, along with your heart rate and blood pressure, to near waking levels.

Lack of REM impairs our ability to learn complex tasks, especially during early childhood.

Sleep 2
How much sleep do we need?

With the different sleep stages in mind, how much sleep do you and your kids need in order to experience the most benefits?

This varies by age, with younger children needing more sleep and adults needing less. Here’s a quick guide:

 Number of hours% of day
Newborns (0–2 months)14–1758–71%
Infants (2–11 months)14–1558–63%
Toddlers (1–3 years)12–1450–58%
Pre-schoolers: 3–6 years11–1346–54%
Children: 6–12 years10–1142–46%
Teenagers (13–18 years)8.5–9.535–40%
Adults (18+)7–929–38%

These needs can vary from person to person, of course, based on things like our circadian rhythms, our sleep drives and the occasional genetic predisposition.

Circadian rhythms

Circadian rhythms usually develop within six months after birth, helping babies to sleep more during the night-time. Each person’s circadian rhythm varies, determining whether they are natural early risers or late to bed.

These rhythms are highly dependent on environmental cues like light, sound, atmosphere and activity levels, meals and even social activities, but light is the prime factor because of its influence on the hormone melatonin which, when released in the brain as daylight fades, helps to trigger sleep onset.

Genetic conditions

Some people have a rare genetic condition that means they truly need less sleep. Only 1–3% of the population can get by on just six hours every night. Sleep is not something we can train ourselves to need less of. The myth about needing less sleep is a harmful illusion. The explanation for those who need less sleep lies in gene expression.

The Goldilocks principle for sleep quantity

We should use the Goldilocks principle when it comes to getting the correct number of hours of sleep: too little or too much both have their down sides, whereas ‘just right’ is literally just right for your body. This will usually fall within the recommended sleep hours for your age.

While it’s hard to imagine that too much sleep could harm you, it may be a sign of an underlying medical condition. Sleeping too much is associated with increased risk of developing medical conditions like diabetes, depression, respiratory and heart problems.

Naturally, if you are unwell, healing from an injury or growing, your body may need more sleep – beyond this, however, it’s best to stick with ‘just right’.

The good sleep formula

When you put these considerations together, the formula for good sleep is fairly simple:

Quality + Quantity = Good Sleep

The quality and quantity of your sleep are inseparable.

If you get quality sleep but not enough of it (not enough hours), brain rejuvenation is incomplete.
If you sleep enough hours but it is of a poor quality (you aren’t cycling through the different stages effectively), brain rejuvenation is incomplete.

If you get the right formula, you feel happier, calmer, less hungry, more energetic and less inclined to ‘need’ a coffee, an energy drink or sugary food to pep you up. Your thinking skills are sharp, you are more creative, you have more physical energy and you have better immunity.

Sleep 3

The most important thing is consistency. It isn’t enough to get one night of good sleep – you and your kids should be experiencing good sleep every night.

These days we are all are over-scheduled, over-committed, overtired and over-extended, which leads many of us to believe we can train ourselves to do more on less sleep.

It is common to hear people say they can catch up on lost sleep, but the truth is that you can’t.

Attempting to a ‘catch up’ by sleeping in on weekends disrupts the routine for the days following, which in turn disrupts the brain’s associations with routine and environment that usually trigger sleep.

Each time you or your kids experience poor sleep, you create a debt that cannot be ‘caught up’. Consistency is the key.

Looking for more?

Let’s build a new generation of healthy sleepers and influence the generations yet to be born!

With my book Sleep-Wrecked Kids, I support you to become the lifeguard of your child’s sleep. Packed full of information and practical help, it will get you on the way to good sleep for all the family. Order your copy here!

Sharon Moore

Author, speaker, sleep health advocate and speech pathologist

I'm Sharon Moore, author, speaker, sleep health advocate and speech pathologist at Well Spoken Upper Airway & Communication Solutions. I've seen more than 40,000 families over 4 decades of clinical work and I’ve seen first-hand how upper airway issues impact both health and happiness. The ripple effects span across family, school, community and society, and left untreated can last a life-time. I believe that great treatment transforms lives, the earlier the better and that everyone has a right to be happy, healthy and heard. I've worked in medical settings in Australia and London and currently run Well Spoken clinic in Canberra treating patients of all ages referred by medical and dental specialists for disorders of function of the upper airway that impact breathing, eating and communication.

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