Sleep, Attention, Learning & Behavior

Sleep supports learning
Sleep readies us for the day

Nutrition, sleep, hydration, and exercise-I am reviewing the four foundations of learning (and life).

The second of our four foundations is sleep.  Science is still trying to figure out exactly why we need to sleep . . . but, while they are sorting this out, let me assure you that we DO need to sleep.  We really do.  Adults definitely sacrifice sleep for other things (not the least of which is surfing the internet-so thanks for reading).  And we often think that, because our kids are getting more sleep than we do, they are getting enough.  But they may not be.  And lack of sleep is linked to several problems with learning, behavior, and attention.

In America, we tend to value go, go, go, often at the expense of rest and sleep.  Sleep, however, is critical for maintaining a calm, alert state.  Good sleep puts us all at our best.  And it is particularly important for kids to have good sleep.  The research is clear.  Lack of a proper amount of sleep impacts:

  • Our Physical health
    • Children (and adults) who miss sleep are more likely to get sick with colds and the flu.
    • When sleep-deprived, we are prone to accidents and injuries. This is a serious problem for drivers but is also an issue for younger, non-driving people. Anyone parenting long enough will know that accidents and injuries happen more often as the kids get tired.
    • Lack of sleep is associated with obesity and all of its related health problems.
  • Emotional health
    • Lack of sleep results in irritability – think whining, melt-downs, tantrums (and that’s just us parents)
    • Behavior problems are more pronounced in children who have poor sleep.
    • Chronic lack of sleep can result in depression.
  • Cognitive abilities
    • Learning and memory are impacted by just a one hour loss of sleep (really truly, there is research to support this).
    • Attention control is weaker without sleep (which circles us back to our physical health and risk for accidents).
    • Hyperactivity goes up as fatigue goes up (this may seem counter-intuitive, but fidgeting and restlessness are our bodies’ strategies to stay awake).

It is not simply that lack of sleep is bad.  Sleep itself is an important activity for learning.   Sleep (including naps) re-enforces the learning that was done that day. It is an important time for storing what was learned.  The process of firming up memories and learning while sleeping is referred to as sleep consolidation.   This process is even more effective in children than adults. This can actually be studied by comparing how well children consolidate new learning over the course of a day or after a good night’s sleep.  Good sleep results in better learning.  Deep sleep is particularly important.   The bottom line – good sleep is critical for new learning (so sometimes it is better to go to bed than to keep studying).

When we think about “good sleep,” we must consider three different aspects:

  • The right amount of sleep (which varies depending on our age), including naps for babies and young children. Here is a sleep chart by The Sleep Foundation.
  • Good quality sleep (as in uninterrupted sleep, new parents can discuss the value of this, as well as the lack of it).
  • A consistent sleep routine and schedule.

The right amount of good quality sleep done consistently is called sleep hygiene.  We should all strive for it (even me, who is writing this at 11pm).  However, most parents have faced some sort of sleep problem at some time in their children’s lives.  Very few of us got the perfect sleepers when our child was placed in our arms. Some parents got kids who simply do not sleep well (and then both parents and the child suffer).  The three simplified types of sleep problems are:

  • Settling down. Some kids just don’t settle down well.
    • Sometimes this is physical restlessness. I have noticed that as kids get tired at the end of the day, some wind down, moving more slowly and looking groggy. Others “wind up.” It’s as if their body’s only plan for this sleepy feeling is to keep moving as much as possible to get the blood pumping. They become wired little Energizer bunnies, pinging off of walls, beds and parents. When put to bed, they remain wiggly and awake and need help to settle down.
    • Sometimes it is mental restlessness. This child may lie still, but worry. Some kids are simply mentally busy. The Queen (my daughter) went through a phase of mentally pondering deep thoughts while lying in bed. My favorite question hollered out to me was, “MOM. . . why did God create mildew?”
  • Night waking. We all move through deeper and lighter stages of sleep each night. Some kids, when they hit a lighter stage of sleep, will become fully awake. Feeling cold, hot, thirsty or anxious can increase the likelihood of a child fully waking. This can be particularly true for children whose parents lie down with them to help them “settle” (see above). When that child later comes to a lighter stage of sleep, he senses that something is not there (the parent that has left the bed), this brings them fully awake and often irritably yelling for the missing parent.
  • Early waking. Some children simply wake before dawn. As the late-night writing mother of an early waker, I can tell you it is brutal. From babyhood to preschool years, the Queen typically started her day between 4:30 and 5:30. She once woke me up by poking at my head with a carton of eggs. I tried keeping her up later to see if it would help her sleep in (at least until 6:00 am). But keeping her up later did not cause her to sleep later, it only made her sleep deprived (and then that made two of us). So I taught her to read a clock by two years of age. She learned to entertain herself quietly by 2 ½ years of age. She did not begin to sleep past 8:00am until 13 years of age. She still does not sleep past 9 even if she is up late.

The Queen seems to simply be an early riser.  But there are some situations or conditions that can disrupt sleep and lead to any of the above problems.  Some common culprits are:

  • Sleep apnea due to enlarged tonsils can disrupt sleep. A common symptom is snoring. Research has shown that even mild snoring has been associated with lower cognitive scores in infants. Snoring in older children can be a sign that they are not getting good quality sleep. Snoring should be evaluated by a physician.
  • Loss of routine (or lack of). Children need a consistent nighttime routine to help them settle their minds and bodies so that they can fall asleep. Some children can fall asleep without this, but others simply cannot. The bedtime routine can be critical. Vacations, illnesses or special events can disrupt the routine, but consistency can get a child back on track once the vacation, illness or event is over.
  • Over-packed schedules and lack of time for active free play. If a child spends too much time being carted from school to piano to fast food to soccer to homework to bed, then they may not have time to burn some calories they need to burn. Also, they have not had any free time to let their brains relax so that they can settle down at night.
  • Screen time. The television, the computer screen, even the smartphone – all are emitting a nice bright light. As the sun sets, the darkness causes our bodies to start producing melatonin – a hormone that induces sleepiness. However, we have been messing with our bodies’ melatonin production since the development of electric lighting. And then came television, then the computers, then the smartphones. All that light in our faces can reduce melatonin production and impact the “settling down” part of getting to sleep.
  • Sneaky sources of caffeine or other stimulants. Watch out for sodas with caffeine, iced tea, some chocolate, coffee flavored ice cream.   A little caffeine can go a long way in some kids. The Queen once had a few ounces of cola at 5:30 pm and did not get to sleep until midnight. We don’t want to even talk about the time she ate the tea bag. Sugar is also a common culprit for a little energy spike when we do not want to see one. And watch out for natural stimulants, such as guarana, which can show up in some health drinks.

So, treat the snoring, get the kids some downtime, turn off the screens, halt all caffeine (by noon) and sugar (by early evening) and let’s GET READY FOR BED.

  • For toddlers through elementary age children, have a routine that runs by the clock
    • 7pm, all screens (computer, tablets, television, phones) off. This includes parents, even if it is just till your child is settled in bed.  The bedtime routine works best if you are not checking your phone.
    • Final snack or drink if needed (nothing with sugar or dyes)
    • Cleaning up – straighten up a few toys if needed, then clean body, face and teeth. If baths are calming, leave time for this every night, not just on the “you desperately need a bath” nights.
    • Say good nights to other family members, pets, special toys, etc.
    • Quiet reading with a parent and maybe a little talking about the day.
    • Kiss and hug goodnight by 8 or 8:30 (start earlier if you need them asleep by 7 or 7:30)
    • Leave (or something like that). If you are not planning to share a bed with the child, do not lay down with the child. I have nothing against the family bed. I think it is a fine family choice. However, if you do not plan on having your child sleep with you, then do not lay down with your child in his bed to help him get to sleep. When the Queen was younger and wanted some company, I simply sat at the door and read a book by the hallway light.

See. . . it’s simple (Bwa ha ha ha ha ha!).  But keep trying.  A routine will establish.  Don’t bend the rules on screen time, sugar, dyes or (heaven forbid) caffeine.  Give the routine a chance for two weeks, then vary if you see your child needs something different.

For a more realistic view of the bedtime routine, you can check out The Honest Toddler’s Bedtime Routine.

If you are lucky enough to have a child who can read their cues for fatigue and essentially put themselves to bed, count your blessings and do not brag too much in the comments section.  Most children need a bedtime routine to settle into sleep in a reasonable amount of time.

Of course, as your child creeps up in age, the bedtime hour creeps back in time.  That’s normal, but keep with a routine and some rules.  Teens desperately need sleep.  Despite their desire and natural tendency to stay up later (melatonin production starts later in the evening for teens), teens typically start classes quite early.  They need their sleep and need to be encouraged to get to bed by 10 at the latest (earlier if they are getting up before dawn).  There is lots of research that confirms that sleep is important for teens health, learning and safety.

Sleep is a huge topic. Maybe not as big as nutrition, but still there are books, articles, videos etc to help parents with sleep issues that have arisen.  Today, I have presented the basics.  If your child has very irregular sleep patterns, night terrors, anxiety/fears, sensory processing disorder or any other issues that can disrupt sleep, today’s entry is merely a quaint informative piece.  You may want to consult with your pediatrician for more strategies or to determine if there is a need to consult with a sleep specialist or other therapist.  I will write more on sleep in later entries.

If you want an additional resource, there is an actual Sleep Foundation that covers sleep as an important foundation for life

And in closing

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care

The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast.   ~William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Chief nourisher in life’s feast.  I love that.