Why is sleep important for academic success?

We all know that sleep is vital for our mental and physical well-being.  The damage from lack of sleep can be instantaneous (like an accident) or it can harm us over time by raising the risk of chronic health conditions.  Here we look at why sleep is important for academic success, and how you can help your child to get the sleep they need. 

How much sleep does my child need?

The NHS website gives the approximate number of hours’ sleep a child needs by age.  A six-year-old needs nearly eleven hours, a ten-year-old almost ten hours, and fourteen to sixteen-year-olds require about nine hours.

Sleep and memory

While we sleep we consolidate memories, and that’s essential for learning new information. Memory functions are described as:

  • Acquisition – introducing new information into the brain
  • Consolidation  – the way the brain processes information so that it becomes embedded
  • Recall – recalling the new information we have acquired.

All three functions are necessary.  Acquisition and recall happen while we are awake, but consolidation happens most effectively when we are asleep because that’s when our neural connections strengthen.

Some studies have shown that certain types of memories are consolidated during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – when you dream.  Other studies conclude that some types of memories are consolidated during slow-wave, deep sleep.  There are still plenty of questions for scientists to answer on this subject!

Sleep and focus

A sleep-deprived child cannot focus fully and therefore cannot learn effectively.  Sleep deprivation impairs children’s ability to concentrate and think by:

  • disrupting the levels of hormones like cortisol, dopamine and serotonin that affect mood, energy and thought.  Your child will feel irritable, perhaps aggressive, and certainly unable and unwilling to work.
  • over-working the body’s organs and muscles so you child starts to feel ‘icky’.

A lack of focus can result in poor judgement, excessive mistakes, and physical accidents. 

What are the benefits of adequate sleep?

  • Being in a better mood – happier, motivated, and thirsty to learn.
  • Better decision making skills and judgements.
  • A sharper memory that is able to consolidate knowledge.
  • Being more able to solve problems and feeling more creative.
  • Making fewer mistakes and having less accidents.
  • Improved gross and fine motor skills.
  • Faster reaction times.
  • Higher self-esteem.
  • Feeling more sociable and less irritable with others.
  • Being generally more capable and productive throughout the day.

What can I do to help my child have a good night’s sleep?

  1. Ensure your child has plenty of exercise during the day, but be aware that exercise too close to bedtime can actually stop your child from sleeping well.
  2. Avoid fried food, sweets, caffeine and soft drinks from late afternoon onwards.
  3. Set a bedtime that suits your child.  Some children get up at 6.30am no matter what time they go to bed.  If that’s your child, then ensure they go to bed early enough to get their full quota of sleep.
  4. Try to keep bedtimes and wake-up times consistent even on weekends (as much as possible, anyway!) otherwise your child will feel jet-lagged and it’s hard to get back on track.
  5. Have a consistent bedtime routine.  Whatever your routine (eg. bath, in bed by 6.30, three stories, a song and lights out) keep it the same so your child knows what’s coming.
  6. Turn off all screens at least two hours before bedtime.  Screens emit light and light makes the brain think it’s daytime.  Light stops the body producing enough of the hormone melatonin which makes us sleepy. 
  7. Keep electronic devices out of the bedroom for the reasons above and to stop your child from using them when they should be asleep.
  8. Reduce stress levels.  Keep bedtimes very calm otherwise your child’s body will produce the stress hormone cortisol which stops them being able to shut down.
  9. Create a sleep-friendly environment.  Make sure your child’s room isn’t too hot (or too cold), and that it’s dark, comfortable and quiet.  Think about your individual child’s preferences.  Some children sleep better with their bedroom door open a crack and some low-level noise from the living room below.  Do what works best for them.

Having stressed the value of sleep, it’s important to make sure your child doesn’t worry themselves if they can’t sleep (“You’re in bed and resting so that’s okay”).  We all know that the more we toss and turn fretting about the sleep we’re losing the worse we make the problem. 

Although continued sleep deprivation is detrimental, most people survive as any mother who has nursed a baby through the night will know!  If your child has an ongoing problem consult your doctor for advice.