Sleep impacts learning in more ways than you might think! We’re all familiar with situations going pear-shaped when our kids have a late night or miss a nap. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve said, ‘oh, she’s tired’, when things go awry. We know that a late night or two, may well lead to irritability, poorer behaviour and emotions running riot. But how exactly does sleep impact our kids’ ability to learn?
How sleep impacts learning
Research suggests there are several areas in which sleep impacts learning. These include:
- Decision making
Sleep and memory
Studies have shown that the nerve connections needed to make memories are actually strengthened during sleep. Verceles, MD noted that: Sleep embeds the things we have learnt and experienced over the course of a day into our short term memory.
If our kids’ ability to remember is impaired, then their learning is clearly going to be impacted. Learning new things relies on being able to remember what they’ve been previously taught.
Verceles also highlighted that an inability to focus and concentrate, negatively affects our memory: If you’re not able to concentrate on what’s at hand it’s not going to make it into your short-term memory and then your long-term memory.
Focus and concentration
Learning requires our kids to be able to focus and concentrate; sometimes for relatively long stretches of time. When we don’t get enough sleep, our thought processes slow down, and our alertness is decreased. This affects our ability to focus and concentrate.
When kids can’t focus and concentrate as well as they need to, it makes it more difficult for them to take in new information and process it.
Sleep and resilience
As well as affecting memory, focus and concentration, a lack of sleep can negatively affect our kids’ resilience, which in affects learning. As with adults, it’s hard for kids to be resilient when they’re tired. For example, they may be more inclined to give up at the first hurdle rather than persevere. This isn’t problematic if it’s the odd day of being tired, but if it’s over time, their potential to learn at an optimum level will be compromised.
A lack of sleep can also impact learning through kids becoming hyperactive. When we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies keep us going by releasing stress hormones. These can hinder kids’ ability to settle down to learning, by making them more active, more unsettled. For some kids, this can lead to misbehaviour which can lead to lost learning time.
Not enough sleep can also affect mood and mental health, both of which will impact a child’s learning. Put simply, It’s difficult to learn when we don’t feel good!
Recommended amount of sleep
How much sleep should our kids get to avoid these negative effects? The following table shows the amount needed at various ages, recommended by the UK’s National Health Service.
OK, but what about ensuring our kids get the recommended amount?!
For many families, this can be a difficult one. Keeping to a strict bedtime can often be a real challenge, even with the best will in the world. You manage to get into the bedroom on time, only for your child to take forever to clean their teeth, put their night clothes on, or it’s a night where they want to read the bedtime story with you – and you know this will really slow things down! Then they decide they have something really important to tell you that can’t wait!
The key to making sure your child gets enough sleep is to establish a routine. Kids thrive on routines; they make them feel safe and secure, and bedtimes are no different. There isn’t a golden standard that if everybody stuck to, their kids would fall asleep straight away and get the number of hours needed for their age. Like a lot of things with our kids, the routine that you decide on will be one that works for your family and your individual kids.
Below are eleven tips you can use to create and maintain a routine that will work for you.
11 tips to help you create and maintain your routine
- Establish a routine that is manageable for you. If you have one that’s unrealistic, it’s more likely to fall apart.
- Allow the routine to be flexible within reason. Establishing something too rigid may end up causing you and your kids unnecessary stress.
- Kids can find it hard to be separated from you at night, so let them choose something to sleep with, like a teddy, doll etc. to give them the comfort and security they need.
- Depending on your kids’ ages, give them a heads-up before you go to the bedroom.
- Turn off all screens a couple of hours before bedtime. The light from screens prevents our bodies from making the hormone melatonin, which is needed for sleep.
- Include a bedtime story. Reading aloud to your child is the single most important thing you can do for them. It’s also great for bonding and making positive associations with going to bed.
- Keep the room at the right temperature and make sure that their night clothes are going to keep them warm if the blanket/duvet falls off during the night.
- Most kids don’t like it to be too dark. Put a night time lamp on or leave the door ajar, allowing light from outside to enter.
- Have a winding down period before bed. Include activities that are calming and relaxing and nothing that’s going to excite them.
- Cover all bases so your child has less of an opportunity to extend bedtime. For example, check that they’re not hungry or thirsty before bed. You can also put a water bottle next to their bed in case thirst strikes at lights out!
- If your child gets out of bed, take them back without making a big fuss about it. If they try any delaying tactics, gently remind them that you’ve already done that (you’ve covered all bases!). If they’re asking for something outside of the routine, remind them that it’s not part of the routine and you can do whatever it is the next day.
One of the most important factors is to keep to whatever routine you’ve decide upon, within reason. Sometimes, even with the best will in the world and a great routine, your child still struggles to fall asleep. Providing there isn’t an underlying medical issue causing it, here are some ideas you can try to help your child get to sleep.
8 Ideas for kids having difficulty sleeping
- Ensure that your child is getting enough physical activity during the day.
- Consider if your child is particularly stressed about something. Stress hormones in our bodies will make it more difficult to go to sleep.
Once in bed, give your child a massage or a tummy/back rub after the bedtime story.
- Do a guided meditation with them. A good one is the Hug Me Tree. You can get a copy of it HERE.
- Avoid anything sweet after dinner.
- Steer away from talking about anything upsetting during the bedtime routine.
- Resolve any conflict before the bedtime routine starts.
- If your child really needs it, snuggle up with them until they fall asleep.
Sleep is receiving more and more attention with regard to our health. Along with diet and exercise, sleep is super important for our kids’ health and ability to learn. At the end of the day, we want everything to be in their favour as much as possible, so they can fulfil their potential.
This doesn’t mean to say that everything has to be perfect all of the time. There will inevitably be times when our kids don’t get enough sleep and some causes will be out of our control. But I think if we remain conscious about it, we can make sure that it doesn’t reach a level where we witness sleep having a negative impact on their learning and sense of well-being.
Over to you..
What’s been your experience with making sure your kids get enough sleep? Did you find the tips in this post useful? Whatever your experiences, I’d love to chat with you in the comments below 🙂
Related: How Nutrition affects learning / How to Encourage your kids to be Physically Active