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Sleep's Role in Your Child's Ability to Learn and Grow by Stacey Nash

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Sleep's Role in Your Child's Ability to Learn and Grow

Children need sleep as much, if not more, as adults. It acts as a stabilizing and regulating influence in their physical, emotional, and mental health. Despite sleep’s importance, many children struggle to get the rest they need, and it can take a toll on their growth and learning. But, there are habits and behaviors you can teach and encourage that can help your child sleep better and longer.

Lack of Sleep and Declining Emotional Control

Depending on your child’s age, they may need anywhere from eight to twelve hours of sleep. Anytime a child gets less, the effects of sleep deprivation start to emerge.

For children, emotional control is one of the first behaviors to change. Without enough sleep, the area of the brain responsible for processing emotions, called the amygdala, becomes more sensitive to negative stimulation. Usually, the logic center of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, applies logic to emotions and helps maintain emotional balance. However, during sleep deprivation, the prefrontal cortex becomes less active. Impulsive, emotional, and erratic behavior may result, putting a strain a child’s personal relationships.

Sleep is Needed for Focus and Attention

The prefrontal cortex also influences executive functions like attention and focus. As it becomes less active during sleep deprivation, children may have trouble executing difficult skills. A study conducted at McGill University and Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal found that math and language tasks, in particular, suffered when children didn’t get enough sleep.

Reut Gruber, a child psychologist who led the study stated, “that executive functions (the mental skills involved in planning, paying attention, and multitasking, for example) underlie the impact of sleep on academic performance, and these skills are more critical in math and languages than in other subjects.”

While this study focused on school-age children, sleep deprivation’s effects on concentration, emotional control, and learning apply to children of all ages. Without sleep, it’s difficult for the brain to learn the tasks and skills needed for further mental and emotional growth.

However, sleep quality and quantity can by developing better sleep habits. Luckily, sleep habits are something you, as a parent, can encourage.

How to Help Your Child Get Better (and More) Sleep

Better sleep starts in a sleep supportive environment. Whether your child is in a crib or twin bed, a lumpy mattress with a scratchy tag could be enough to cause wakefulness. The bedroom should also be kept cool, dark, and quiet to eliminate distractions and support the body’s need for a lower body temperature during sleep.

You can also:

  • Follow a Bedtime Routine: A routine trains the brain to recognize when to start the release of sleep hormones while helping calm the mind and body. It should include relaxing activities like reading a book or singing quiet songs that bring energy levels down. For the best results, the activities should also be performed at the same time and in the same order each night.
  • Keep a Regular Bedtime: When coupled with a routine, a regular bedtime solidifies the brain’s ability to correctly time the release of sleep hormones.
  • Turn Off Screens: Televisions, smartphones, and other electronic devices emit a bright light that can suppress sleep hormone. If these devices are kept in the bedroom, studies have shown that they can distract children with even the thought of playing or watching them. You can help by removing electronic devices from the bedroom and turning off screens two to three hours before bed.

With time, effort, and consistency, you can promote the healthy sleep habits that will last your child well beyond childhood. Adequate sleep will help your child develop and maintain their personal relationships and provide the opportunity for them to reach their full academic potential.


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