The Power of Zzzzz
My Child, January 2006
Lack of sleep can have a dramatic effect on your child’s learning and behaviour
In the days before multi-channel TV and games consoles, the parental order ‘go to bed’ signalled the end of the day as far as children were concerned. In recent years, however, ‘go to bed’ doesn’t necessarily result in the instant onset of sleep, such are the myriad distractions that populate children’s bedrooms – with the result that concentration and academic performance are suffering.
A recent study carried out by researchers at the University of Oxford showed a fifth of young children get two to five hours less sleep a night than their parents did. Over the course of a year, this equates to over a month’s worth of sleep. The findings are particularly concerning, as research shows that losing just half an hour of sleep can have a profound effect on how children perform the following day.
While most parents agree that lack of sleep can have a negative impact on children, many think their children can take responsibility for their own sleep habits, says Dr Luci Wiggs, a research fellow at the University of Oxford Section of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: “[They] think that their child will take the sleep they need and show sufficient self-awareness to resist the temptation of all the competing activities and pastimes. Would they credit children with such self-awareness and discipline if they put a whole chocolate cake in from of them and told them only to eat as much as they should?”
Chronic sleep deprivationWith nightly temptations such as televisions, DVD players, games consoles and computers in their bedroom, experts believe many children are chronically sleep deprived, which can impair their ability to concentrate and learn effectively. As Will Thomas, an educational trainer and form science teacher explains: “Increasingly young people are pushing the boundaries on their sleep patterns and arriving in school in a less than fit state for learning. The brain requires rest and it requires unconscious processing time to fully integrate new learning. When you learn something new, your brain has to physically grow connections between nerved cells. This growth is energetic and requires resources. In fact, much of our natural resilience and resourcefulness depends upon us having good quality sleep.”
A good night’s sleep is not only crucial for getting children ready to learn, but research suggests it can also improve academic performance. Researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel compared a group of nine to 11-year-olds who had slept for an hour longer than usual. After five nights on this regime, the extra sleepers scored much higher marks for memory, recognition and reaction.
There is also evidence to suggest that sleep is closely linked to children’s behaviour. Poor sleep patterns have long been associated with behaviour and behavioural disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but some sleep experts now suggest sleep deprivation is not just a symptom – but also a cause – of challenging behaviour.
The link between sleep and behaviour is not exclusive to children with a known disorder or those who are clinically labelled as ‘disruptive’, says sleep therapist Mandy Gurney , co-founder of Millpond Sleep Clinic and author of Teach Your Child to Sleep: Solving Sleep Problems form Newborn Through Childhood. She believes many parents are unaware of how much sleep their children need or how badly a deficit can affect their behaviour. “I’ve worked with conscientious parents who can’t understand why their child is having huge tantrums, hitting other children in the playground or has a poor appetite. Once they recognise how much sleep their child actually needs and the importance of a bed time routine, these kinds of problems often resolve very quickly.”
Bedtime wind downChildren’s pre-sleep activities may also have their part to play. The University of Oxford study conducted for drinks manufacturer Horlicks, found 67 per cent of four to 10-year-olds have a TV, games machine or PC in their bedroom and experts fear that there is a direct link between these digital distractions and increased lack of sleep in children.
As Dr Wiggs puts it: “One of the problems with the pre-sleep activities of modern children is the fact that they are unstructured activities i.e. they do not have clearly defined start and end times. This is the first generation of children to face such a plethora of alternatives to going to sleep and the long term consequences can only be guessed at. What we do know is that impaired sleep quality or quantity may compromise children’s physical health. For many children ‘go to bed’ may no longer mean ‘go to sleep’ but rather ‘go to your bedroom to amuse yourself until you get so tired that you fall asleep with the video still running’.
The good news is that bad habits can often be reversed within a matter of days, says Gurney. The key is establishing bedtime routines, which help children to ‘wind down’ and mentally prepare for sleep. She explains: “Turning off the TV or tidying away the toys is a good way to signal the start of ‘bedtime’ followed by a relaxing bath. Then it’s straight into the bedroom to get changed for bed, followed by a story. An effective bedtime routine shouldn’t take longer than 45 minutes.”
According to Gurney, even the most well-meaning parents can contribute to children’s sleep problems by letting bedtimes slip or allowing children to come back downstairs to watch TV or play on the computer after a bath. She also advises parents not to use bed times as an opportunity to talk about their child’s day as this can get their brains working overtime and keep them awake. “It’s really about getting back to old-fashioned values. Being consistent and carrying out the same process every night should ensure your child goes to sleep and stays asleep.”
Tips for a good night’s sleep• Avoid stimulating food or drinks in the evening.
• Encourage quiet play an hour before bedtime.
• Have a regular bedtime and start your routine no later than 45 minutes before settling your child down to sleep.
• Be consistent and aim to carry out the same process each night e.g. bath, pyjamas, story, and lights outs. This ‘sleep package’ gives your child the cues that bedtime is approaching.
• Once your child is in their pyjamas don’t return to the ‘living’ area as you may lose the focus of the bedtime routine.
• Make sure your child’s room is quiet, dark and a comfortable temperature.
• Have clear and consistent boundaries at bedtime; when you say three stories mean three. If your child knows what to expect they are less likely to argue.
• Help your child to learn to fall asleep alone without your presence.