Instead of offering tips to get kids started on the right foot as they enter a new school year, I have advice to keep them on track all year long: Make sure they get enough sleep!
But first, it’s important to understand why sleep is important to your child’s success.
Sleep Allows Us to Be at Our Emotional Best
According to the National Sleep Foundation, poor or inadequate sleep in children can lead to mood swings and behavioral problems, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and cognitive problems, that impact kids’ ability to learn in school. While the relationship between lack of sleep and poor behavior or moodiness is generally accepted as true, several recently published studies offer further support.
A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics (authored by Reut Gruber, director of the Attention Behavior and Sleep Lab at the Douglas Institute at McGill University, in Quebec) looked at children ages 7-11. One group of children went to bed earlier and got about 27 extra minutes of sleep a night while the other group stayed up later than their bedtime and lost about 54 minutes of sleep each night. The study concluded that “students who were sleep-deprived not only seemed overly tired, but were more impulsive and irritable than their well-rested classmates. They were quick to cry, lose their tempers or get frustrated.”
Sleep Equals Brain Power
Did you know that the higher one’s IQ is, the more they sleep? While the amount of sleep children get does not automatically predict their IQs, it is certainly an important factor performing at their best.
Avi Sadeh, a clinical psychologist and professor at Tel Aviv University in Israel, conducted a study where at random a group of fourth- through sixth-graders were instructed to sleep either more or less. The results were astonishing.
Sadeh concluded that “a loss of one hour of sleep is equivalent to [the loss of] two years of cognitive maturation and development.” This is like a sixth-grader performing at a fourth-grader’s level after just three nights of poor sleep!
Studies have also shown the importance of a regular and consistent bedtime. In a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, researchers from the University College London examined data on bedtimes and cognitive tests for reading, math and spatial abilities for 11,000 7-year-old children. The results: Both boys and girls who had inconsistent bedtimes at age 3 tested lower in all of three testing areas. At age 7, girls without a consistent bedtime also scored lower in all testing areas. And girls who never had a consistent bedtime (at ages 3, 5 and 7) scored significantly lower in all three areas, leading the researchers to conclude that the impact of an irregular bedtime seems to be cumulative.
The researchers reported this conclusion: “The consistent nature of bedtimes during early childhood is related to cognitive performance. Given the importance of early child development, there may be knock on effects for health throughout life.”
Now that you understand why sleep is important to your child’s academic success, how do you ensure children are getting what they need?
Follow my “Sleep Six” below.
Just as babies and young children thrive with routine, the same is true for older children and teens when it comes to sleep. A consistent and predictable age-appropriate routine will set up your child for sleeping success. A routine that is calming will set the tone for sleep (a warm bath, reading or listening to quiet music are great). Be clear on your child’s bedtime schedule and set limits to keep things on track. For example, make sure everyone understands what time the routine will start, how many books will be read and how many sips of water are allowed. This will keep the “just one more” stalling technique at bay.
Keep bedtime at a set time, even on weekends. Having just two late nights each week can throw children out of whack and leave them overtired for the school week. A regular bedtime keeps your child’s circadian rhythms on track and is instrumental in allowing your child to easily fall asleep and stay asleep.
Knowing how much sleep children need, work backward from their wake-up time to set their bedtimes. Kids between ages 5 and 12 require 10 to 11 hours per night. Teens need approximately 9 to 10 hours a night. If your child wakes up at 6:30 a.m. each day and requires 10 hours of sleep, he needs to be fast asleep by 8:30 p.m. each night.
A common error I see surrounding bedtime is mistaking children’s “asleep time” with their “bedtime.” It is important to factor in how long their pre-sleep routine takes and also how long it takes for them to fall asleep and allot that extra time in their schedules. So for the scenario above, a child who needs to be asleep by 8:30 p.m. may need to start the bedtime routine by 7:30 p.m. to ensure they are able to get in all of her zzs.
Your child’s room should be a calm, stimulation-free environment at bedtime – cool, dark and quiet. A room that is too hot can be disruptive. Research suggests that a hot sleeping environment leads to more awake time and lighter sleep at night with increased night awakenings. I suggest a temperature between 65 and 72 degrees for sleep time.
A dark room is also important because our sleep clocks are set by cues from light and dark. Light tells our bodies it is time to wake up and darkness tells our bodies it is time to sleep and to produce the sleep hormone melatonin. Light suppresses melatonin production and therefore can actually disturb sleep.
Invest in blackout blinds or curtains to make your child’s room as dark as possible and be sure sources of blue light are turned off or don’t have them in the bedroom. For an inexpensive quick fix, I love paper blackout blinds.
To ensure your child’s sleep is not disrupted by ambient noise, consider a fan or a white noise machine to block out any sleep distractions. Ideally, we want a clutter-free room at bedtime, as this is the easiest environment in which to relax and unwind. But we don’t want to add extra stress to the nightt ime routine. I suggest a quick room tidying as a post-dinner activity so when it’s bedtime everything is set.
Lastly, your child’s bed should be used just for sleep with homework and games done elsewhere.
5. Nutrition and Activity
A healthy lifestyle improves sleep. Ensuring that your child gets at least 20 minutes of exercise a day will help her to sleep even better, but try to cut off physical activity three hours prior to bedtime.
Limit foods that contain caffeine and sugar, especially in the late afternoon and evening, and avoid large meals right before bedtime. If your child needs a quick snack before bedtime, reach for a glass of milk, a cheese stick or a piece of fruit, as these foods promote calmness.
Cut off screen time at least one hour before bed. Not only is watching TV or playing games on a tablet or computer stimulating, but usage of these can also suppress your body’s release of melatonin. Your child’s room should also be free of any electronic devices, as studies have found that children who have them in their rooms sleep less.
As Judith Owens, M.D., director of Sleep Medicine at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, states: “Consider that [sleep] is one of the building blocks of your child’s health, well-being and academic success. It’s equivalent to good nutrition, exercise and all the other things we try to foster and provide for our children. You’ve got to put sleep right up there at the top of the list.”