In my household, and I suspect many others, one of the biggest challenges when the kids go back to school in the fall is getting them back on a learning-friendly sleep schedule. With summer social engagements and daylight lasting until 9pm, we tend to ease up dramatically on bedtimes. On the other hand, our kids sleep in later because they don’t have to get up for school… but what about when summer winds down and August rolls around? How much sleep do children need, anyway? To what extent do sleep habits affect learning?
According to the National Sleep Foundation, children should be spending approximately 40 percent of their childhood asleep. As children age, they tend to need less sleep, but good sleep habits remains vital to learning throughout high school and beyond. As I learned in my research, it’s also important to be aware of different triggers that might interfere with a good night’s sleep.
Sleep can be broadly classified into two main cycles: REM and NREM. REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep is also known as “active” sleep. During REM sleep, our breathing and heart rates become irregular and our eyes move rapidly back and forth beneath our eyelids, the brain becomes active and dreaming occurs. As children age, they spend less time in this stage. As newborns, REM sleep accounts for approximately half of their sleep time, but by late childhood and early adolescence, about 20 percent of sleep time is spent in REM sleep, which is
typical of adults as well. NREM (non-rapid-eye-movement) sleep consists of several stages of sleep, and is often referred to as “quiet” sleep. During these stages of sleep, blood supply to the muscles is increased, energy is restored, tissue growth and repair takes place, and hormones are released for growth and development.
Sleep requirements decrease with age, and guidelines are available from the National Sleep Foundation and The American Academy of Pediatrics. Infants typically require anywhere from 14 to 18 hours of sleep per day, but consider the dramatic growth and learning that goes on during the first year of life! By the time they reach preschool, most children require 11 to 13 hours of sleep, and many still need a short nap in the middle of the day. Children ages six to 12 typically require 10 to 11 hours of sleep per night. While physical growth begins to slow somewhat, these kids have to contend with all-day school programs and extracurricular activities. Older children and adolescents, ages 12 to 18 need about nine hours of sleep each day.
So what happens when our kids don’t get enough quality sleep? Scientists know that sleep-deprived children have shorter attention spans, impaired memory and longer reaction time. Poor sleep habits also can have a major effect on temperament, particularly in younger children. Poor sleep is associated with behavior problems such as aggression, defiance and hyperactivity. Not surprisingly, academic performance is also closely correlated with sleep habits. According to studies, as little as 30 minutes of lost sleep time can affect school performance the following day.
Establishing Good Habits
Educating children on the importance of sleep can go a long way. Our pediatrician summed it up to them once in simple terms: think of sleep as recharging the battery of the mind and body. I’ve clung to this little mantra many a night with my younger daughter. Establishing good sleep habits in a child who has never had a consistent sleep schedule can be tough. Ideally, sleep habits should be taught in infancy, with regular bedtimes and consistent routines. If you’ve already missed that boat, don’t despair, but don’t delay, either! The longer you wait, the harder it becomes.
Tips for improving sleep habits in school-aged children include:
- Educate children about sleep’s function.
- Designate a bedtime—and stick to it.
- Initiate a “winding-down time” 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime.
- Make your child’s bedroom conducive to sleep—dark, cool, quiet and TV-free.
- Eliminate caffeine products from children’s diets.
- Identify medications that may be interfering with sleep and talk to your child’s doctor.
In our household, the party’s over on August 1. We eschew late-evening activities and return to our school year bedtimes, a proclamation that is unfailingly met with groans of protest. This gives all of us time to get back in the groove, and it usually takes more time than you think it would. This year, take a look at your child’s sleep habits as back-to-school approaches. You may be surprised to find that he or she is falling short. Sweet dreams!
Shannon Fields is a freelance writer and a Certified Pharmacy Technician at Innovative Pharmacy Solutions.