How to stop your child falling asleep at school and help them cope better with Hong Kong students’ heavy workloads

Lack of sleep or irregular bedtimes can lead to children being unfocused in lessons and missing out on important learning, so it is essential for parents to break bad habits – especially as youngsters approach puberty

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 May, 2017, 6:48am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 May, 2017, 6:48am

My Year Six daughter has always been a night owl and always seemed to manage on very little sleep. Her teacher recently said she seemed to be tired in class and was finding it hard to concentrate. Although we send her to bed at a reasonable time, she rarely falls asleep before 11pm. What can I do to help her?

There is no magic number for the hours of sleep a person needs in order to function in a rational and productive way. Some people naturally need more sleep than others, and alternatively we hear of high-functioning adults in responsible jobs who famously survive on as little as four hours a night.

However, research clearly tells us that getting a sufficient amount of sleep is vital for good health and well-being. Children, in particular, require enough sleep to grow and develop, and to enable them to perform to their full potential. A good night’s sleep leaves them feeling refreshed and alert for the day ahead, ready to concentrate and engage fully in school and social activities.

The general recommendation for a child of your daughter’s age is between 9½ and 10 hours of sleep each night. Although she has managed on less in the past, she is now at the age where her body is changing and hormones are kicking in, and a lack of sleep may be taking its toll. Academic and social pressures may also be greater in Year Six (when children are aged about 11).

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It must be frustrating to observe your daughter struggling to sleep when you have made every effort to send her to bed at a reasonable time. To help her settle, aim for quiet, calm activities before bedtime. Some experts suggest avoiding any screen activity an hour before retiring to bed. Mindfulness exercises could also help your daughter to feel calm and relaxed. Make sure her bedroom is dark and at a comfortable temperature. Remove gadgets and computers and, crucially, if she has a phone, keep it out of the bedroom, because this could distract her mind even when turned off.

There may be other factors that you haven’t considered. Does she get enough physical exercise each day? Encouraging her to take part in sports or simply be more active could help to wear her out. Does she have a healthy diet and avoid large meals and caffeinated drinks just before going to bed? Is she worried about anything? Perhaps her brain is wound up or overstimulated at bedtime due to internet or phone communications with friends, or perhaps she has been watching something scary or exciting on TV?

You could agree on a “going to bed” time, with the option of keeping the light on and reading until she is sleepy. Perhaps encourage lights out 10 minutes earlier the following week. Try to change her routine slowly, step by step. Your family doctor may also have some useful sleep tips.

Some parents allow children to stay up very late at the weekend because they don’t have to get up early for school, but this disrupts a child’s body clock

Unfortunately, bad sleep habits can become a vicious circle as the body gets used to a poor routine that then becomes hard to break. However, avoid making bedtime an issue. Your daughter lying in bed, aware of your expectations and worrying that she is not asleep may actually cause her anxiety. Some parents allow children to stay up very late at the weekend because they don’t have to get up early for school, but this disrupts a child’s body clock. If possible, keep your daughter’s bedtime routine the same even at the weekend.

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Irregular bedtimes or lack of sleep can lead to all sorts of problems in children, from disagreeable or hyperactive behaviour to social problems and academic difficulties. Sleep-deprived students often become distracted and unfocused in lessons and miss out on important learning. Tiredness has an impact on mental health for all of us – we can become overanxious or overwhelmed by small problems.

Sleep allows the mind and body to recover from a busy day’s activities, which increases productivity and improves cognitive skills. Stage three or four sleep (the deepest and most restorative states) is particularly important because this is when the body and mind rejuvenate themselves. During deep sleep the muscles relax, and breathing and blood circulation slow down. Energy is restored and hormones are released that are essential for growth and development, including muscle development.

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It is definitely worth being persistent in helping your daughter change her sleep pattern as she hits puberty, in order to improve the quality of her waking hours and her ability to learn, and to help her be productive and enjoy life. Even if a child has an unhealthy sleep routine, studies have shown that the effects of this can be reversed if there is a positive change in sleep habits.

Julie McGuire is a former Hong Kong primary school teacher