toddlers looking at a phone

Children, Sleep and…Cellular Aging?

I recently came across an article reporting on a new sleep-related research that I felt compelled to share – both because of the relevance of its findings, but also because I’m well aware that its specific focus might otherwise run the risk of being seen as more than a little “dry”. I always consider data regarding children and lack of sleep worth addressing, but this article promised an added component regarding long-term effects of sleep deprivation in children. Entitled “Skimping on sleep in childhood could speed up cellular aging,” it seemed to me, as a pediatrician with a bachelor’s degree in cellular molecular biology and someone dedicated to translating health-related science into more practical terms, that the “cellular aging” aspect of this article warranted a bit more explanation before diving into the results.

Now for those of you who are starting to think this sleep-focused blog is about to put you to sleep, please don’t stop reading just yet! This area of research involving such terms as “cellular aging” and “telomeres” really is proving itself to have significant real-world implications, including as it relates to prioritizing a good night’s sleep for our children.

How Much Sleep Do Children Need?

To ease into the discussion, let’s first focus on the more generally relatable subject of children and their typical sleep needs. Leaving the discussions of newborn and teenage sleep to another day and post, it is well recognized that in any given 24-hour period:

  • Toddlers (age 1-3) typically require 12-14 hours of sleep.
  • Preschoolers sleep an average of 11-12 hours.
  • School-age children & preteens need around 10 to 11 hours.

That’s not to say, however, that these recommended daily amounts of sleep are always easily achieved. From nightmares and night terrors to tantrums, travel, technology and the testing of parental limits, parents are quite familiar with the myriad of causes for too little sleep. As for the day-to-day effects, we all recognize the resulting crankiness, irritability, problems concentrating and impaired performance (just to name a few) that tend to go hand-in-hand with getting too little sleep, regardless of one’s age.

New Research Shows Compelling Reason to Take Sleep Seriously

Beyond the effects that can be easily observed in outward behaviors, relatively new research capabilities are revealing highly compelling reasons, right down to our cellular level, for why we should all take sleep more seriously. Connecting our day-to-day behaviors to the effects they have on our cells is actually not a new concept. In fact, many researchers have been focusing on the accelerated shortening of something called telomeres — structures which serve as little “protective caps” at the end of each chromosome that are used as a marker of cellular aging. While these telomeres are known to naturally get shorter with age, behaviors such as poor diet, lack of exercise, and stress are being been shown to speed along this shortening. Shortened telomeres have also been linked to health issues ranging from cancer to heart disease to decreased cognition.

So now that I’ve given you a brief, but important, background on cellular aging and the important role that telomeres play, I will now leave you with what the Princeton researchers in the recently published study discovered: that children who get less sleep have shorter telomeres. For practical purposes, this means that too little sleep not only can cause crankiness and “impaired performance” in the short run, but can also lead to a whole host of potential health issues for our children (and ourselves) down the line.

And with that, I hope this post will, in fact, put you – and your children – to sleep a bit earlier!

About The Author

Dr. Laura Jana

As director of innovation at The University of Nebraska Medical Center, Dr. Laura Jana is a pediatrician, award-winning author and health communicator specializing in a wide range of health topics – from early literacy, child care and development, to health and nutrition promotion, among others. With degrees from the University of Michigan and Case Western Reserve University, Dr. Jana focuses her efforts on pediatric and health-related issues extending well beyond the four walls of a pediatric office.

Dr. Jana co-founded the Dr. Spock Company – one of the first online health sites ever – in 1999, and also founded her own company, Practical Parenting Consulting, shortly after. Her passion for promoting a healthy lifestyle for children and has been recognized on a national level, as reflected by her role in the nationally-acclaimed “Learn the Signs. Act Early!” campaign, which is dedicated to increasing awareness of the importance of social, emotional and cognitive development in our nation’s youth.

As media spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Jana has also served on the National Executive Committee for Early Education and Child Care. Her professional efforts are increasingly dedicated to addressing the earliest and most pressing needs of children and families.

When she’s not giving speeches or traveling, Dr. Jana enjoys spending time with her husband and their three teenagers.

Best Night’s Sleep: Dr. Jana gets her best night’s sleep when she returns home from a trip and gets to sleep in her own king-sized bed with her blackout curtains drawn. The best nights – getting to wake up without having to set an alarm!

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