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The Importance of Sleep at Each Stage of Life

Sleep needs may change with age but remain crucial to mental and physical health

Key points

  • Insufficient sleep creates different challenges throughout life: lack of cognitive processing for children, increased fall risks for seniors.
  • Insomnia can persist for months and can impact other health concerns.
  • Supporting sleep can create a cascade of lifelong, positive health effects.

Through each life stage, sleep is critical to our mental, cognitive, and physical health. This tells us that sufficient sleep is a foundational aspect of life, akin to fresh water, nutritious food, and clean air. Not getting enough—at any stage—can provoke a reaction that resembles a threat response, like a panic response.

Even so, each stage provides its own challenges to sleep: the child who resists bedtime, the teenager who stays awake late into the night, and the older adult who wakes frequently. Just as many parts of the world lack fresh water, nutritious food, and clean air, sufficient sleep can be in short supply, too.

What separates sleep from other foundational needs, however, is that it is particularly vulnerable to our psychology. Sleep is primarily biological. We can’t control it, but we do need to shape its expression.

Many causes of sleep disturbances stem from cycles of stress when we don’t get the balance right between allowing sleep to come naturally and trying to enable it. When we have difficulty accomplishing a function that seems like it should be automatic, we can become hyper-aroused and stressed. Stress can create a vicious cycle that interferes with sleep, with health detriments compounding with time. We contaminate this biological process out of our desperation to fix it. Think of people who begin to hyperventilate when they overthink how they breathe. So it goes with sleep.

Understanding the importance of sleep at each stage and its corresponding challenges can help us comprehend the stakes of the problem—and point us to solutions.

Sleep During Infancy

Why it’s crucial: Babies sleep a disproportionate number of hours, with long and frequent periods of sleep. Considering their exponential learning curve, it’s no wonder. While babies sleep, their brains develop, strengthening connections between the hemispheres of their brains and processing experiences into memories. Essential growth hormone is secreted in slow-wave sleep, and cellular regeneration only occurs during sleep throughout our lives. Sleep is an active part of cognitive development.

How we can support it: At this stage, babies sleep best when they have routines scheduled around their sleep—which, for newborns, can be about 16 hours of their day. Create a rhythm around sleep with a calming and consistent routine to create positive emotional associations with sleep.

Sleep During Childhood

Why it’s crucial: Children require plenty of sleep as they experience continued acceleration in learning. For example, consolidation of learning depends on sleep more than wakefulness. But childhood is also a time when new beginnings can become routine disruptors, such as transitioning from naps, starting new schools, or going on vacations. Children who are overly tired can resist sleep, which can spark a lasting association between stress and sleep.

How we can support it: Continue to create a schedule around sleep, which will help a child establish independence in their sleep routine. At this stage, children may begin to experience worry and anxiety at nighttime, and routines should include calming activities to reduce associations between stress and sleep.

Sleep During Adolescence

Why it’s crucial: During this stage, circadian rhythms begin to skew later. Teenagers tend to feel wide awake until later at night, and then they have difficulty waking in the morning. This schedule is at odds with most American high schools, which tend to start early. This disparity between weekday societal schedules and circadian rhythms results in an effect called social jetlag, which can cause fatigue, as well as concentration difficulties and behavioral problems.

How we can support it: Being aware of this shift might help us be more understanding of teenagers when they resist earlier bedtimes or when they sleep later on weekends to compensate. Just as we need to catch up on sleep when dealing with travel jet lag, teenagers might need to do the same when dealing with academic schedules that don’t align with biological ones. Help teenagers create positive sleep habits—as with smaller children, create calm, consistent routines—and teach them the importance of sufficient sleep.

Sleep During Adulthood

Why it’s crucial: This stage varies from person to person. Some people have careers with flexibility that help them align their circadian rhythm with their schedule—but this is rare. Even while trends shift in where we work, few employers offer flexibility in when we work. This flexibility would offer wins for everyone: greater productivity, well-being, and fewer accidents. Other things that compromise sleep quality during adulthood include sleep apnea, perimenopause and menopause, and restless leg syndrome.

How we can support it: During this stage, our minds can interfere with sleep. Countering sleep disturbances requires establishing new habits and changing the narrative. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based insomnia treatment that allows us to reframe the obstacles to sleep. While medications can promote sleep in the short term, CBT corrects underlying causes of insomnia—without the potential for dependency and side effects that medications bring.

Sleep During Late Adulthood

Why it’s crucial: While teenagers have difficulty falling asleep early, older adults tend to fall asleep easily but wake more frequently during the night and have a final awakening that is quite early. Fragmented sleep can cause daytime sleepiness, which can lead to other neurocognitive problems, such as cognitive performance and motor function. Evidence shows a correlation between insomnia in seniors and hip fractures from falls. In addition, trouble sleeping and disturbed dreams can be a bellwether for other conditions, including Parkinson’s disease or dementia, so it becomes even more important to learn the cause of sleep disorders.

How we can support it: Older adults who already take other medications may understandably hesitate to add a new drug—and with it, additional side effects—for sleep. A non-pharmacologic, evidence-based approach like CBT is an effective and appealing option.

More from Colin A Espie Ph.D.
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