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The Importance of Sleep Throughout Development

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Sleep is an important activity that children, adolescents, adults, and even animals need in order to partake in daily functions. While this may be common knowledge for some, the why, and the how sleep affects daily activities is considerably more complicated. Sleep is vital for our neurosensory system, motor system, memory system, and brain plasticity over a person’s lifespan. Boyson (2016) discovered through Penn & Shatz (1999) that not enough sleep, specifically REM can cause problems with all the senses, motion, position, memory, and emotional and social learning. Overall, sleep is extremely important and necessary for everyday tasks, such as physical, cognitive and emotional functioning (Gruber, 2013).

While sleep is necessary for everyone, it is especially crucial for infants and their developing brain. The need for sleep is evident based on the number of hours a child sleep from the time they are born compared to late childhood. What many do not realize is that sleep is also important before the birth of a baby. As stated in Boysan (2016), Graven & Brown (2008) found that sleep starts at around 28 to 30 weeks in the gestational age, and helps with forming the sensory cortex and brain stem.

After birth is when we can start to determine how sleep affects the development of a child. Gruber (2013) discusses the developmental changes in sleep from newborns to adolescence. From newborn to twelve months, infants tend to spend much of their day sleeping. Gruber (2013) found through Sadeh, Raviv, and Gruber’s (2000) study that it is during this time the circadian system matures. The circadian system is known as an internal body clock that helps a person know when it is to sleep and when it is time to wake. Once the progression of the circadian system occurs, an infant is more likely to sleep through the night. This occurrence typically happens around six to nine months. During this developmental period, an infant’s amount of sleep remains consistent night to night, but it is specific to each individual child. As a child moves through life, sleep schedules will fluctuate. For instance, as an infant approaches early childhood, the ages between one and six, sleeping through the night becomes more common and eventually naps stop. It is during this stage of sleep development in which sleep disorders become noticeable. Those that cannot develop and maintain a routine sleep schedule are more susceptible to be diagnosed with sleep disorders. If a child needs the help of a caregiver, then he or she becomes reliant on that person to get back to sleep. This has the potential to lead to a problem. In this stage it is also important for the child to develop self-soothing methods (Gruber, 2013), which will also help with developing autonomy in the future. Although sleeping tends to decrease with age, it is still important for a child to get between nine and eleven hours of sleep. A 2016 study showed a positive correlation between significant improvements in childhood sleep and educational report cards (Gruber, Somerville, Bergmame, Fontil, & Paquin, 2016). This study verifies that healthy sleeping patterns are important for children and memory retention. Adolescents tend to display the most unique sleeping patterns, they like to stay up later at night and sleep in later in the morning than do children or adults. Although sleeping patterns start to vary in adolescents the need for proper sleep is still there. Studies have shown that sleep duration was correlated with bilateral hippocampal grey matter volume, which allows us to learn new things (Tarokh, Saletin, & Carskadon, 2016). Through their research, we can also prove that the brain is not yet done developing.

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Although the sleeping schedules may be different across development, the sleep cycle remains the same. There are certain stages of sleep that we go through continuously while we are asleep. In general, the cycle lasts approximately 1.5 hours and occurs around 4 or 5 times throughout the night. The two sleep states consist of non-REM or NREM sleep, and REM sleep. NREM sleep consists of three stages and it is what an individual spends most of their time in. While asleep we spend around 80% of the total time asleep in Non-REM. Stage one of non-REM is the transition from being awake to being asleep. In this stage the body begins to slow down, such as ones breathing and heart rate. In this stage some people even experience sudden muscle movements due to their body relaxing. Stage two is still a light sleep, but the body continues to relax even more. Within this stage the body temperature drops, eye movements stop, and brain activity is very slow. The following stage, stage three of non-REM sleep is a stage that is necessary for a person to feel rested, and restored, ready to start their day. This stage is considered a deep sleep and tends to last longer in the beginning of the night. If it is hard to wake someone, he or she might be in stage three of non-REM sleep. The other state of sleep is REM sleep which starts when stage three, deep sleep ends. REM sleep usually begins around ninety minutes into a sleep. During this stage your brain is active, displaying brain waves as if you are awake, but certain parts of your body are paralyzed to prevent any action (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, 2006).

Although all stages of sleep are important and needed to complete a sleep cycle, it seems that stage three, deep sleep and REM are the most important stages for functioning. “Deep sleep is essential for restoring the brain’s capacity to learn efficiently, especially in regions heavily activated during the day” (Fattinger et al., 2017). This may be a reason why sleep for children is more important and necessary, due to the amount children take in daily compared to adults. Fattinger et al.(2017) showed through their study that neuroplasticity is restored when an individual gets uninterrupted sleep and that deep sleep is warranted for learning. REM sleep is just as important. Li, Ma, Yang, & Gan (2017) found that “REM sleep has multifaceted functions in brain development, learning and memory consolidation by selectively eliminating and maintaining newly formed synapses via dendritic calcium spike-dependent mechanisms”.

As explained, research has shown the importance of sleep throughout life, but especially in the years that the brain is most plastic or when learning is occurring. Gruber, 2012 explains programs that can help educate people on sleep. First, these programs should come up with why sleep deprivation is occurring? Is it lifestyle choices, poor sleeping habits/changes in development or an actual sleep disorder? If the latter, an actual sleep disorder is possible, a professional will be needed. Interestingly, one of the barriers to sleep interventions that Gruber discusses is that school based interventions have taken place, but experimental evidence is low. According to Anderson & Tydesley (2019), Buckhalt et al. (2009) believes that school psychologists need to get involved because sleep deprivation negatively impacts educational success. Multiple studies that Anderson & Tydesley (2019) reviewed proved that the knowledge of sleep was limited among psychologists and it was Rydzowski et al. (2016) that believed educational psychologists could be part of the intervention process.


  1. Anderson, J., & Tyldesley, K. (2019). Children and young people who present with sleep deprivation: An initial exploratory study using the Delphi technique with reference to potential competencies required for the initial training of educational psychologists. Educational and Child Psychology, 36(3), 77–91.
  2. Boysan, M. (2016). Developmental implications of sleep. Sleep and Hypnosis, 18(2), 44–52.
  3. Eagleman, D., & Downar, J. (2016). Sleep and the Brain. Brain and behavior: a cognitive neuroscience perspective (pp.310 – 334). New York: Oxford University Press.
  4. Fattinger, S., de Beukelaar, T. T., Ruddy, K. L., Volk, C., Heyse, N. C., Herbst, J. A., … Huber, R. (2017). Deep sleep maintains learning efficiency of the human brain. Nature Communications, 8(1). doi: 10.1038/ncomms15405
  5. Gruber, R. (2013). Making room for sleep: The relevance of sleep to psychology and the rationale for development of preventative sleep education programs for children and adolescents in the community. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 54(1), 62–71.
  6. Gruber, R., Somerville, G., Bergmame, L., Fontil, L., & Paquin, S. (2016). School-based sleep education program improves sleep and academic performance of school-age children.
  7. Sleep Medicine, 21, 93–100. doi: 10.1016/j.sleep.2016.01.012
  8. Li, W., Ma, L., Yang, G., & Gan, W.-B. (2017). REM sleep selectively prunes and maintains new synapses in development and learning. Nature Neuroscience, 20(3), 427–437. doi:10.1038/nn.4479
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  10. Tarokh, L., Saletin, J. M., & Carskadon, M. A. (2016). Sleep in adolescence: Physiology, cognition and mental health. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 70, 182–188. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.08.008

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The Importance of Sleep Throughout Development. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 21, 2023, from
“The Importance of Sleep Throughout Development.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022,
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