• Martha Lewis

5 Reasons Your Baby Needs Sleep

Sleep has always been a bit of a mystery to us humans. From an evolutionary standpoint, it seems like something that we should have abandoned a few hundred thousand years ago. It's pretty crazy that we fall into a near unconscious state for a third of our day, every day. Our time asleep left us vulnerable to whatever horrifying dangers we faced in the early days of civilization. So it makes me wonder how we ever made it this far as a species.

But it just goes to show you that whatever sleep does for us, it’s obviously vital to our health and well-being. If it wasn’t, those individuals who needed less sleep would have risen to the top of the gene pool a long, long time ago. And those that thrived on a lot of sleep would have been, well, eaten probably. Man, I’m glad I was born in this day and age. Being eaten would suck.

As of yet, the scientific community hasn’t been able to tell us exactly why we sleep. But there is definitely a consensus among researchers (and new mothers) that adequate sleep is good for you in a whole bunch of ways.

1. Learning

We’re all familiar with the fact that we have a hard time focusing on information when we’re running on too little sleep. Absorbing information is only half the battle though. Actually, if you really want to get technical, it’s only a third.

Learning and memory are divided into three functions. Acquisition, consolidation, and recall. Put simply, you need to receive the info. Then you need to stabilize the memory of it. And finally, you need to be able to access it when you’re watching “Jeopardy!”

Acquisition and recall really only take place while you’re awake. Consolidation, on the other hand, “takes place during sleep through the strengthening of the neural connections that form our memories. The overall evidence suggests that adequate sleep each day is very important for learning and memory.”(1)

So even if you manage to focus on what you’re learning and acquire the information, you need sleep to properly store that information in the brain. Otherwise, when you're called upon to access it, you’ll find yourself drawing a blank.

A study in 2007 concluded that a child who sleeps less than 10 hours a night in early childhood is more likely to be hyperactive and have lower cognitive performance at age 6. This confirms that sleep as a baby will affect how he learns years later. That's pretty crazy to me!

2. Mood

We all know that when we don’t get enough sleep, we get short-tempered and irritable. A study from the University of Pennsylvania showed that subjects who experienced even partial sleep deprivation reported feelings of stress, anger, sadness, and mental exhaustion. (2)

This isn’t exactly new information. We’re all aware that we get emotional in very negative ways when we’re running on too little sleep. But why?

Again, it’s a bit of a mystery, but some researchers have suggested that sleep deprivation stimulates activity in the amygdala. That’s the little almond-shaped part of the brain that’s responsible for feelings of, among other things, anger and fear. Without sleep, our amped-up feelings can lead to an overall sense of stress and hostility towards others. Same with our babies.

As March Weissbluth summarizes a study in his book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, "At 18 months, total sleep duration of ten or fewer hours or awakening three or more times a night predicts emotional and behavioral problems at age 5."(3)

I work with quite a few parents who say their babies are perfectly happy even though they aren't sleeping well. But every single mom admits that their babies are even happier once they get the sleep they need.

As a recent client just wrote about her 6-month old after working with me,

"Since he’s been getting better-regular sleep, he has been like a new baby. He is calmer and happier around others, when before, most of the time, he’d only let me hold him."

3. Health

We can see how getting enough sleep is essential to learning and emotional well-being, but what about some more tangible benefits? Well, short of eating and breathing, you would be hard pressed to find anything with more health benefits than getting enough sleep.

"... the shorter you sleep, the shorter your life. The leading causes of disease and death in developed nations...such as heart disease, obesity, dementia, diabetes, and cancer-all have recognized causal links to a lack of sleep," says Matthew Walker in Why We Sleep.

And the more you baby sleeps, the less likely he is to catch all the sicknesses going around. A study on sleep and the common cold concluded that you're more likely to catch a cold the less sleep you get the week before you're exposed to the virus. (4)

4. Growth

The human growth hormone (HGH) is intensely produced when your baby is in deep sleep. In fact, as much as 75% of HGH is released during sleep.

Not only does the growth hormone ensure your child grows and gains weight properly, it also repairs our tissues and cells, even in adulthood. This repair function partially explains why lack of sleep contributes to so many diseases, especially heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

5. Healthy Weight

Not getting enough sleep causes obesity. Since that probably seems shocking, let me explain.

During sleep, our blood sugar levels and other hormones that affect our hunger and weight are kept in balance. One of these hormones is leptin which gives us a satiated, full feeling. The hormone ghrelin, on the other hand, tells us that we’re hungry.

Studies have shown that when people are sleep deprived (sleeping less than 6 hours a night), leptin levels decrease and ghrelin levels increase. So when you don’t get enough sleep, you feel hungrier even if you eat the same amount as when you got a full night’s sleep. It's the same with our babies and children.

Sleep deprivation also contributes to diabetes. And not just because we’re more likely to eat sugary, fatty foods when we’re tired. But also because lack of sleep causes our body to become less responsive to insulin, the hormone that regulates our blood sugar. And insulin resistance leads to high blood sugar, hyperglycemia and eventually diabetes.

As you can see, hormone regulation is extremely important to having a healthy weight. According to Weissbluth,

"Short nighttime sleep under age 5 years predicts obesity by ages 5-9 years." (5)

So there’s no question that sleep, while it remains mysterious, is definitely as essential part of a healthy, happy lifestyle. But that all changes when you have a baby, right? I mean, you’ve brought a new life into this world. And you’re expected to sacrifice your sleep for a few years in order to respond to your baby’s needs. This is, in my mind, the most problematic myth about parenthood. So my mission is to tell as many parents as possible that you can have a child and get the sleep you need.

Because here’s the thing; your baby needs sleep even more than you do. Those little bodies may look like they’re idle when they sleep. But as you now know, there’s an absolute frenzy of work going on behind the scenes.

Growth hormones are being secreted to help baby gain weight and sprout up. Cytokines are being produced to fight off infections and produce antibodies. All kinds of miraculous, intricate systems are at work laying the foundation for your baby’s growth and development. And they’ll continue to do so through adolescence, provided they’re given the opportunity to do so.

Nature does the heavy lifting. All that’s required of your little one is to close their eyes and sleep. This being my field of expertise, I see a LOT of people telling new parents that babies just don’t sleep well. That they should expect their little ones to be waking them up seven or eight times a night.

So to those people, I would just like to say, I completely disagree. Your advice isn’t just wrong, it’s harmful. Telling people to accept their baby’s sleep issues as a part of the parenting experience is preventing them from addressing the problem. And that affects the whole family. Not because they’re selfish and they want to sleep late. It’s because they, and even more so, their kids, need adequate sleep for all of the reasons I’ve listed above.

And if your baby is waking up 7 or 8 times a night and crying until you come into the room and rock her back to sleep, that’s not motherood-as-usual. That’s a baby who has trouble sleeping. And it’s interfering with their body’s natural development.

It’s no different than an ear infection or jaundice. It’s a health issue and it has a remedy. So anyone telling you to grin and bear it for the next six years is peddling horrible advice. I’m sure it’s not done maliciously, but it still needs to stop.

Because accepting inadequate asleep in infancy leads to accepting it in adolescence. Eventually you end up with grown adults who don’t give sleep the priority it requires, and all of those serious health issues follow along with it.

So to every new mother out there, I implore you, don’t accept the idea of sleep as a luxury that you’re going to have to learn to live without for a few years. If your baby’s not sleeping, address it. It’s not selfish, it’s not unrealistic, it’s necessary. And the benefits of sleep are prolific.


(1) Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, retrieved from healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/ healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep/learning-memory, December 18, 2007

(2) Sleep. 1997 Apr;20(4):267-77. Cumulative sleepiness, mood disturbance, and psychomotor vigilance performance decrements during a week of sleep restricted to 4-5 hours per night. Dinges DF1, Pack F, Williams K, Gillen KA, Powell JW, Ott GE, Aptowicz C, Pack AI.

(3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5440010/

(4) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4531403/

(5) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4293641/

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