Sleep: The Best Gift to Your Child’s Intelligence

As parents, we are faced with an onslaught of products that claim to improve our child’s learning and intelligence. Manufacturers of toys, games, and electronic devices all try to convince us that they will make all the difference in your child’s development.

It turns out that perhaps the easiest gift we can give our child’s developing brain is sleep. We all know the importance of sleep, but new research links sleep directly to the development of executive function in young kids.

Why is Executive Function Important?

You may have heard the phrase “executive function” thrown around in education circles. What does it really mean? Simply put, executive function is the mental processes that help you regulate your behavior. Things like impulse control, working memory and planning are all part of executive function.

From this description you can probably tell how important executive function is to kids performance in school, and perhaps more importantly, their functioning in later life. Kids who lack executive functioning skills often appear to be misbehaving or defiant. In reality, their brain just doesn’t yet have the skills to regulate their behavior well.

The Link to Sleep

Think back to the last night you lost a night’s sleep. How did you feel the next day? Groggy, slow-moving, perhaps even clumsy or forgetful? This is a perfect example of how sleep affects executive control. Without proper sleep even we adults are not at the top of our mental game in terms of executive function. Now imagine this same scenario in children, who have not fully developed their executive control anyway.

Past research has clearly linked sleep loss to poor executive function in elementary age children. In these groups, children who lose sleep either due to medical problems or purposefully in lab settings often experience deficits in cognitive skills and the ability to pay attention.

We are just now understanding, however, the ways in which sleep might affect executive function in very young children. The newest study on this topic looks at children as young as 12-18 months of age. While these kids have not developed a great deal of executive function skills, it is still possible to see differences.

The results of this study found that among kids who had more overall night sleep, their executive function skills were higher than among kids who had less overall night sleep. Additionally, the area that showed the most difference was executive functions that centered on impulse control.

As parents, we all know what this looks like in real-life. Your toddler skips a nap or gets to bed too late one night and they are a mess the next day. Cranky, unable to follow the simplest instructions and cries at the drop of a hat. Now multiply this by weeks or months of inadequate sleep and you can get a picture of how sleep really affects executive function.

So, forget all the fancy gadgets and electronic games. If you want your child to develop their intellect and executive function in the best possible way—just let them sleep as much as they can.

About the Author

Amy Webb, PhD is a scholar turned stay-at-home mom with two young sons. With her blog, The Thoughtful Parent, she brings academic child development and parenting research into the lives of parents in the trenches of child-rearing. She does not claim to be a parenting expert, but rather a translator of academic research into reader-friendly articles.

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