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Sleep & Leaning: Why sleep should be every child's priority

Sleep is really a central part of learning. Studies have shown that kids who regularly get an adequate amount of sleep have improved attention, behavior, learning, memory, and overall mental and physical health. Poor sleep or not enough sleep affects concentration, memory and behaviour, making it harder for your child to learn. Children who don’t sleep well are more likely to feel sleepy at school during the day and to have difficulties with learning. Not getting enough sleep can also lead to high blood pressure, obesity and even depression.

Remembering things is part of learning. If your child is tired, it’s harder for your child to remember basic things like how to spell words, how to do maths calculations, or where to find information in a book or on the internet. It’s also harder for your child to remember how to do things like playing a musical instrument.

Our brains create and strengthen different types of memory while we’re asleep. For example, just before your child wakes in the morning, their brain is sorting and storing memories and information from the previous day and getting ready for the day ahead.

But what is exactly happening while we sleep?

Critical to sleep’s role in development more generally – is a non-REM phase of deep sleep known as slow-wave sleep (SWS). SWS is important for forming and retaining memories, whether of vocabulary, grammar, or other knowledge. The interaction of different parts of the brain is key here. During SWS, the hippocampus, which is good at quick learning, is in constant communication with the neocortex, to consolidate it for long term recall. So the hippocampus might initially encode a new word learned earlier that day, but to truly consolidate that knowledge – spotting patterns and finding connections with other ideas that allow for creative problem-solving – the neocortical system needs to get involved.

This information expressway between the hippocampus and the neocortex is populated by sleep spindles – spikes in brain activity that are no more than three seconds long.

Children’s ability to learn so rapidly may stem from the fact that they have more slow-wave sleep. Adults can also call upon this kind of information learned during the day. But as researchers explain, sleep is doing that in a more efficient way in children. Children need to sleep during the day to remember everything that they have to learn.

“The effects are stronger in early childhood because the brain is developing,” says Dominique Petit, the coordinator of the Canadian Sleep and Circadian Network, who has also explored the circadian rhythm in children. In practical terms, this means that “children need to sleep during the day to remember everything that they have to learn”.

"Daytime naps in young children have been shown to be really important for vocabulary growth, generalisation of the meaning of words and abstraction in language learning," she says. "Sleep continues to be important for memory and learning throughout the lifetime, though.”

Not only does sleep help with accessing this information, it also changes the way this information is accessed. This makes brains more flexible at retrieving information (or able to access it in more ways). But it also makes them better at extracting the most significant parts of it.

What is the recommended amount of sleep a child should get?

It varies based on age. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:

  • Infants under 1 year: 12-16 hours

  • Children 1-2 years old: 11-14 hours

  • Children 3-5 years old: 10-13 hours

  • Children 6-12 years old: 9-12 hours

  • Teenagers 13-18 years old: 8-10 hours

Marlen Vas., Director of Music

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