Sleep: Quality vs. Quantity

Quality SleepJust like many things in life, quality sleep is more important than the quantity. It is more beneficial to the human body and has a great impact on the way we function.

The internal rhythms, at which our bodies are set to operate, create a time to be asleep and a time to be awake. When we try to fall asleep against this internal rhythm, not only does it make the process longer and harder, but the quality of sleep is compromised. Child sleep expert Kim West describes it as, “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.” When the times at which we are asleep differ from the time that our sleep clock has preset for us, the restorative purposes of sleep suffer. Quality of sleep can be compromised when in motion, when started out of rhythm with our internal clock, and will lead to unproductive wakeful periods.

Motion Sleep

The concept of loss of quality is prevalent when understanding the idea of motion sleep. I often work with families that have had their babies sleeping in swings, strollers or car seats as they found the motion soothing. Even though movement can be soothing to a baby, when sleep is experienced in motion, the quality is once again compromised.

“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 enter the deep sleep phase which is when the mental and physical restoration that sleep provides takes place. Therefore motion sleep is considered “junk sleep”, and junk sleep is just as bad for the body as junk food.

Going Against the Wave

When our sleep/wake patterns are in harmony, it gives us the opportunity to have productive wakeful periods. When someone wakes up not feeling their best, perhaps still tired or low on energy, this is possibly due to the fact that although they had a sufficient quantity of sleep the night before, the quality may not have been ideal.

This 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 simple, the child is not getting enough sleep, and the sleep that he is getting is not happening at the same time that his internal clock has planned for him to sleep. Falling asleep out of sync with our internal rhythm produces cortisol. Even after the child has fallen asleep, the cortisol and the overtiredness together make it harder for the child to stay asleep, this inevitably creates night waking’s.

Interrupted and Fragmented Sleep

As a child sleep consultant, my main objective during the sleep training process is often to help get their child to sleep through the night. For obvious reasons, 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, our sleep becomes fragmented and the quality begins to dwindle. This happens every night that a baby wakes and a parent responds; one of the reasons that it is important to seek help to get your child sleeping through the night once they are old enough and their pediatrician has agreed that they are no longer in need of night feedings. Interrupted and fragmented sleep reduces the quality significantly 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 add up to sleep debt. The only way to repay sleep debt is to sleep it away. This is not always a possibility in the hectic world we live in, however it is another reason that 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, he says “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.”

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. I encourage families to make not only sleep quantity a healthy everyday practice for your family, but sleep quality as well.


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.

Weissbluth, Marc. Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child: A Step-by-step Program for a Good Night’s Sleep. New York: Ballantine, 2005. Print.


As seen on February 2014

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