Sleep & Learning: Why is Sleep Important for Children?

Tips to avoid bedtime battles

Most of us have experienced the effects of sleep deprivation after a night of poor sleep: slow reflexes, less patience, and a decreased ability to process information quickly. So, it’s no surprise that sleep deficits can impact children’s learning and school performance. You may be surprised, though, to learn that children respond to a lack of sleep in wholly different ways than adults.

How Does Sleep Affect Memory?

Adequate sleep can improve memory recall in preschoolers, according to a 2017 study from the University of Arizona. The study found that children who habitually took naps and/or slept well at night were more likely to recall recently learned words. A 2013 study at the University of Massachusetts Amherst found similar results. Children who took an afternoon nap were more likely to retain newly-learned information after the nap, and even the next day.

Learning is tied directly to behavior and focus, which are also influenced by sleep quality and quantity. While a lack of sleep makes adults and teens sluggish, sleep deprivation tends to make children distracted, aggressive, and even explosive.

How Much Sleep Do Kids Need?

Sleep is a controversial topic since getting children to bed is a struggle for many parents. Every child and family is different, and there’s no one right answer. In general, though, infants need 12 to 17 hours of sleep each day, according to the National Sleep Foundation; toddlers and young preschoolers sleep 11 to 14 hours, while preschoolers typically need between 10 and 13 hours of sleep daily.

Tips for Getting Your Child to Sleep More

Just as children differ in their preferences and temperaments, some children fall asleep easily while others find sleep more elusive. Below are a few tips that may help your child fall asleep and stay asleep.

Set the stage. Kids’ engines tend to run hard all day long, but a slow-down period in the afternoon or evening is essential to peaceful sleep. Take a walk after dinner, read books together, or play quietly. This might not be the best time to have an all-out wrestling match. A warm bath can be very soothing, helping your child to relax and sleep.

Turn off technology. Screens emit blue light, which can actually rev up the brain and lead to trouble falling asleep. Additionally, television programs or games with bright colors, flashing lights, or songs stimulate children. Practice healthy technology use with children, turning off all screens at least an hour before bedtime or naptime. If you can’t avoid computers, install software, such as t.lux for Windows and f.lux for Mac, that changes the light from blue-white to yellow in the evening to help children fall asleep faster, according to behavioral scientist Wendy Troxel.

Offer a snack. A high-protein snack, that is. Children often wake in the night because they’re hungry. Offering a snack rich in protein or complex carbs can give them the fuel they need to sleep through the night. Think cheese and whole-grain crackers, peanut butter on whole-wheat bread, yogurt, hummus and pitas, or a glass of milk.

Like toilet learning and eating, sleep is one area that parents tend to feel guilty about, even though we have limited control over it. Most children go through cycles of sleeping well and sleeping fitfully. Sleep patterns can be impacted by a variety of factors, such as illness, teething, developmental milestones, or changes in the home and environment.

So, why is sleep important for children? We know that the effects of sleep deprivation can manifest themselves in the classroom, making healthy sleep essential for learning and growth. However, sleep is cumulative. Children tend to recover quickly from a few nights of lost sleep—probably more quickly than their parents! Some children give up naptimes earlier than others. In general, though, given a peaceful environment and opportunity, children will catch up on sleep when they need to.

More on Children and Sleep:

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Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands
Tips to avoid bedtime battles