40% of Childhood Asleep!

Every living creature needs to sleep and it is the primary activity of the brain during early development. In fact, by the age of two, most children have spent more time asleep than awake. Sleep for Kids states that, “a child will spend 40% of their childhood asleep”!  This sleep is critical for both their physical and cognitive development.

The Harvard Women’s Health Watch (2006) suggests six reasons to get enough sleep and the number one is Learning and Memory. Sleep helps the brain commit new information to memory through a process called memory consolidation. In studies, people who’d slept after learning a task did better on tests later.

Learning and Memory functions are typically divided into three types: Acquisition, Consolidation and Recall. Acquisition refers to the introduction of new information into the brain. Consolidation represents the processes by which a memory becomes stable and Recall refers to the ability to access the information (whether consciously or unconsciously) after it has been stored.

Whilst acquisition and recall only occur during periods of wakefulness it is believed by many researchers that the brainwaves seen during sleep are associated with the formation of some memory.

So if so many researchers believe sleep to be important for learning and memory what is the impact of lack of sleep? I am sure many of us can relate to the feeling of sleep deprivation – lack of focus, attention drift, limited ability to process information. Without proper sleep we cannot easily retrieve previously learned information from our brains. In addition, our decision making is impacted and often we struggle to make good choices with regards to our behaviour. Our mood is also affected by sleep deprivation. A bad mood is not a positive state for learning. It has been shown that we acquire new information better when in a positive state of mind.

So as everyone makes their lunches, packs their bags and prepares for the school year how can parents ensure their children arrive at school with the best start possible, a good night of sleep?

There are some helpful hints available at www.sleepforkids.org

For Pre Schoolers (3-5 years) one can expect them to be typically sleeping 11-13 hours per night with most not having a day sleep after 5 years of age. They may have difficulty falling asleep and waking up during the night are common. As their imaginations develop they may experience dreams, night terrors and sleep walking.

Parents can help by:

  • Maintaining a regular and consistent sleep schedule
  • Have a relaxing bedtime routine that ends in the room where the child sleeps
  • Making sure the child sleeps in the same sleeping environment every night, in a room that is cool, quiet and dark- and without a TV

School children aged five to twelve years need 10-11 hours of sleep per night. Increased demands on their time from school, sports, co-curricular activities and social groups are matched by an increased interest in television, computers, the media and Internet. All of these factors can result in difficulty falling asleep, nightmares and disruptions to sleep. There has been a link shown between watching television close to bedtime and sleep issues.

At this age it is common for children to experience sleep problems and disorders. Believe it or not this can lead to hyperactivity in the classroom and can impact negatively on their ability to recall learned information.

It is important for parents to assist by:

  • Teaching healthy sleep habits
  • Emphasising the need for a regular and consistent sleep schedule, bedtime routine
  • Ensuring the child’s bedroom is conducive to sleep – dark, cool, quiet, TV and computer free

The school year is upon us once more and as our kids return to the classroom let’s help them be prepared by ensuring they are getting the rest they need. As the team at the Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School (2007) say, “It is clear that a good night’s rest has a strong impact on learning and memory.”

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