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The importance of sleep for children’s ability to learn and remember, and how to correct bad sleep patterns

The different stages of sleep are beneficial for different aspects of memory, making it all the more important that children get enough sleep. If they don’t, here’s what you can do

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 8:48pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 9:10pm

The teacher of my seven-year-old son tells me he doesn’t retain concepts easily and often needs to have instructions repeated, a Hong Kong parent writes. She says he’s always tired in class and has recommended he sleeps longer to help his memory and concentration. He finds it hard to fall asleep and wakes early even if he goes to bed late. Could this be a reason why he can’t remember things?

For many years research has clearly shown that getting enough sleep is crucial to the learning process. Recent studies have shed further light on just how important sleep is for memory both before learning (to prepare the brain for understanding and making new memories) and afterwards (to remember and cement the new learning that has taken place). The right amount of sleep can provide a memory increase of up to 40 per cent.

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The studies show that different types of sleep aid different memory skills. Stage three to four sleep (the deepest sleep) is particularly important, as this is when the mind and body rejuvenate themselves, improving productivity and building cognitive skills. As the muscles relax and breathing slows down, energy is restored and essential hormones are released for growth and development. This deep, early night sleep aids both short- and long-term memory retention, and even retrieves memories forgotten before going to sleep.

On the other hand, the sleep that happens in the last two hours before waking can promote the improvement of motor skills, often referred to as “muscle memory”. This type of lighter sleep increases the brain memory of practised routines such as swimming or riding a bike. Practice and muscle training are a vital part of the process.

There could be a variety of reasons for your son’s difficulties in remembering concepts and his lack of focus in class. These might include his lack of maturity and learning readiness. Young boys are sometimes just not ready for formal learning or for applying themselves in a classroom situation, which demands concentration and sitting still for periods of time.

Bearing in mind the studies cited above, it is worth taking the teacher’s advice and persisting in helping your son improve his sleep patterns. A good night’s sleep would leave him feeling more alert for the day ahead, and ready to engage fully in school activities. Discuss with the teacher whether there is a difference in his ability to learn and remember concepts taught and observe his behaviour at home.

Some children naturally need more sleep than others, but the general recommendation for a child of your son’s age is around 10 hours a night. It is never easy for parents who have a child who doesn’t sleep well and, unfortunately, poor sleep habits are hard to break as the body clock gets into a vicious circle of disturbed nights.

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In this situation it is all the more vital to encourage a good sleep routine, even at weekends and during holidays. It is worth bearing in mind that even missing out on one night’s sleep is likely to affect your son’s memory and concentration even if he catches up on subsequent nights.

The good news is that the effects of unhealthy sleep habits can be reversed with a positive change. Try to change your son’s routine slowly by making bedtime a little earlier each night over several weeks without it becoming an issue or cause of anxiety.

There are several things you can do to help him settle. Make sure his bedroom is dark and at a comfortable temperature. Aim for quiet, calm activities before bedtime; a bedtime story can help, or the option of reading to himself, until he feels sleepy. Stop any screen activity an hour before sleeping to avoid his brain becoming overstimulated, and keep gadgets and computers out of the bedroom.

Provide a healthy diet without too much sugar or food colourings, and avoid eating late. Encouraging your son to take part in sports and do plenty of physical exercise each day will help to tire him out before going to bed.

All children require sufficient sleep to grow, develop and perform to their full potential. Irregular bedtimes can lead to all sorts of problems both in school and at home, including hyperactive or inappropriate behaviour, social problems and academic difficulties. Sleep-deprived pupils often become unfocused and distracted in lessons.

There are examples of high-functioning adults such as prime ministers and presidents who famously survive on very little sleep. However, tiredness has an impact on mental health for all of us, often causing people to become over-anxious and overwhelmed by small problems. It can also lead to long-term health problems later in life.

Julie McGuire is a former Hong Kong primary-school teacher