Sleep quality vs. quantity: what parents need to know

Like many things in life, quality of sleep is just as important as the quantity.

Nature has gifted us all with a biological clock which determines the ideal time to be asleep and awake. When we try to go against these rhythms, not only does it make bedtime a struggle, it also compromises the quality of sleep.

Child sleep expert Kim West says, “If you miss your child’s “sleep window,” that natural time to sleep, his body won’t be pumping out calming melatonin. Precisely the opposite will occur. His adrenal glands will send out a rush of cortisol, a stress-related hormone that will overstimulate your baby, make him ‘wired,’ and create a second wind.” ((West, Kim, and Joanne Kenen. The Sleep Lady’s Good Night, Sleep Tight: Gentle Proven Solutions to Help Your Child Sleep Well and Wake up Happy. New York: Vanguard, 2010. Print.)).

When our sleep times are in conflict with our natural body clock, the restorative purposes of sleep suffer.

Motion sleep

I often work with families that have their babies sleeping in swings, strollers or car seats as they find the motion soothing. But even though movement can be calming to a baby, when sleep is experienced in motion, the quality can be compromised.

Kim West say “Motion lulls us to sleep, but it also keeps us in a lighter, more fragmented sleep; our brains never reach the level of full restorative sleep if we’re moving.”

When sleep is experienced in motion, the brain does not always enter the deep sleep phase which is when mental and physical restoration takes place.

Therefore motion sleep can be thought of as ‘junk sleep’, and just like junk food, it’s not something that you should do on a daily basis.

But as sleep consultant Dana Obleman advises, “.. does this mean you can’t hold or cuddle your sleepy baby when she’s upset? Of course not! It’s okay to use rocking for soothing and comforting your child, but when it becomes a crutch used to fall asleep, it is not doing anyone any good.

Going against the wave

When our sleep/wake patterns are in harmony, it gives us the opportunity to have productive wakeful periods. Even when someone gets a full night’s rest, they may still wake up feeling groggy, perhaps still tired or low on energy.

This is usually a sign of poor sleep quality. The idea is emphasized in children. Parents often come to me puzzled when their child is waking up from an almost three hour nap cranky and upset.

The answer is often simple; the child is not getting enough sleep, and the sleep that he is getting is not coinciding with his internal body clock.

Falling asleep out of sync with our internal rhythms is sub-optimal and creates unnecessary stress for the child. Even after they have has fallen asleep, the cortisol and the overtiredness together make it harder for the child to stay asleep, this inevitably creates night wakings.

Interrupted and fragmented sleep

As a child sleep consultant, often my main objective when hired by a family is to help get their child to sleep through the night. This helps not only the child get the adequate rest they deserve, but the parents as well.

When we are awoken in the middle of the night, sleep becomes fragmented and the quality begins to dwindle. This happens every time a baby wakes and a parent responds.

When a baby is very young this is hard to avoid. But as they get older and your pediatrician has agreed that they are no longer in need of night feedings, sleeping through the night should become a priority because interrupted and fragmented sleep significantly reduces sleep quality and when occurring on a regular basis will have long term effects on your health.

Optimal wakeful periods

In order to conduct optimal wakeful periods, we need to experience quality rest. Our daytime function is directly impacted by the quality of sleep we had not only the night before, but continually.

Missing even short periods of sleep every day adds up to sleep debt. The only way to repay sleep debt is to sleep it away. This is not always possible in the hectic world we live in, however it’s another reason why sleep should be made a priority by every member of the family, starting with our babies.

Child sleep expert, Dr. Marc Weissbluth explains the importance of sleep in direct relation to healthy wakeful periods “I believe that healthy naps lead to optimal daytime alertness for learning that is, naps adjust the alert/drowsy control to just the right setting for optimal daytime arousal. Without naps, the child is too drowsy to learn well. Also, when chronically sleep deprived, the fatigued child becomes fitfully fussy or hyper alert in order to fight sleep, and therefore cannot learn from his environment.” ((Weissbluth, Marc. Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child: A Step-by-step Program for a Good Night’s Sleep. New York: Ballantine, 2005. Print.))

When quality of sleep is compromised, so are its purposes. Understanding this from an early age is done when parents educate themselves on the importance of healthy sleep habits and take control of the sleep environment in their home. In terms of  healthy everyday practice I encourage families to not only look at quantity, but to focus on sleep quality as well.


Leave a Comment