The early childhood years are years of extraordinary brain growth. At birth, the brain of a pēpi is only about a quarter of the size of their adult brain. By age three that has leapt to 80% of adult size, and by 5 it is almost fully developed at 90%.
What do these brains-under-construction need the most during this time? Nourishment tends to pop to mind first, and yes, little brains absolutely do need ‘brain food’, and “opportunities” (with play being that perfect ‘how’). This vital need is best when partnered with an equally important one, that gets a little less attention – REST. In a stimulating world, where all input is soaked up in sponge-like fashion, brains quite simply need a break. That puts sleep firmly on the priority list for our tamariki. Sleep both at night, and when young, also in the day.
Research tells us that not enough, or poor quality, sleep can negatively affect children’s behaviour, learning, wellbeing, health,and weight. If we flip that to the positive – sleeping well and often is hugely beneficial for a child’s physical and mental health. Ensuring children can sleep when needed is thus critical for them to be truly well-beings, and to take us out of our head for a moment and into our heart – it is also a real kindness we can offer tamariki in a very fast-paced, and (over)stimulating world.
A Day is a Long time
The space between waking up in the morning, and bed at night is a huge expanse of time for young children. Think of how much is asked of them in all those waking hours! This is why day sleeps are important. Little brains and bodies NEED breaks. This is as true in care settings as when they are at home. As well as the intellectual ‘asks’ in a day, children are also riding the waves of their emotional lives, and navigating the social waters of being in a community of learners. No wonder our tamariki get tired!
Here’s the tricky part: we can’t actually ‘make’ any other person sleep. The environment we create (in both the physical setting and the pace) can help or hinder the process for the child. Too often, we tilt more toward hindering – if we don’t stop to think how crucial sleep really is for growing children and growing brains. If we’re always at go-go-go speed, or we want children to stay awake in order for nights to be easier, we are being a barrier for a much needed brain-break. That old adage, ‘sleep begets sleep’ is a useful one to remind ourselves, and that well rested children sleep better overall. We also want children to listen to their bodies, and to learn to interpret their physiological knowings – not, “I’m yawning, I’m struggling to manage what is happening right now, it’s time to distract myself”, but: these things are happening, what I’m needing is sleep. Or at the very least, a rest.
Another age old adage, ‘never wake a sleeping baby’, is one we’ve all heard but are never sure whether to agree with. If we allow the sleep (which brains thank us for), do we wake them when it starts to get a bit lengthy? Views are polarised on this one and you can find arguments either way. But perhaps again, we could look at it differently – not with our ‘head’ but with our hearts. Aotearoa’s own Pennie Brownlee has a beautiful way of directing our lens when it comes to responding to our tamariki, with the simple question of “How would I like it”? How would (and do) we like being woken when our body is craving sleep? How do we like it when we’re exhausted but are made to ‘press through’? How instead would we like it if our tired brains were allowed to sleep, to rest, and we could follow that beautiful rhythm of activity, rest, activity, rest. Don’t we feel rested (and grateful) even just imagining it?