Sleep deprivation affects kids brains differently than adults, a new study shows.

I don’t need scientific evidence to tell me that sleep deprivation is bad for my health. With two young kids, two cats and a house on a busy road, I’m perpetually sleep-deprived. Many of us are. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep, putting us at risk for serious health issues.

“Sleeping less than seven hours per day is associated with an increased risk of developing chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and frequent mental distress,” the CDC says.

Given this, it’s obvious why many parents try to make sure their kids get plenty of sleep. (That, and if naps get skipped, they turn into screaming little monsters.) But here’s another reason to let kids get their zzz’s: A new study says lack of sleep may be damaging to kids’ brains.

“The process of sleep may be involved in brain ‘wiring’ in childhood and thus affect brain maturation,” Salome Kurth, author of the study and a researcher at the University Hospital of Zurich (UHZ), told science daily. “This research shows an increase in sleep need in posterior brain regions in children.” (Specifically, the parietal and occipital lobes.) This is different than the effects of sleep deprivation in adults, where the effect is typically concentrated in the frontal regions of the brain.

Science Daily reports:

Supported by a large student team, Kurth and her colleagues … studied the effects of 50 percent sleep deprivation in a group of 13 children between the ages of 5 and 12 years. The team first measured the children’s deep sleep patterns during a normal night’s sleep. They then re-measured on another night after the researchers had kept the children up well past their bedtimes by reading and playing games with them.

As for sleep and the impact on brain development or “maturation,” as Ana said, it has to do with deep sleep and myelin content. Myelin is fatty white tissue that allows electrical information to travel quickly between brain cells.

“Our results show that the deep-sleep effect occurs specifically in a particular region of the brain and is linked to the myelin content,” sums up Kurth. According to the researcher, this effect might only be temporary, i.e. only occur during sensitive developmental phases in childhood or adolescence. The scientists assume that the quality of sleep is jointly responsible for the neuronal connections to develop optimally during childhood and adolescence.

How much sleep does your child need?

Here’s what the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine suggest for kids and sleep:

  • Babies ages 4 months to one year: 12 to 16 hours a day, including naps
  • Toddlers ages 1 to 2 years: 11 to 14 hours a day, including naps
  • Kids ages 3 to 5: 10 to 13 hours a day, including naps
  • Kids ages 6 to 12: 9 to 12 hours a night

Teens ages 13 to 18: 8 to 10 hours a night