Sleep Turbo-Charges the Brain
As the mother of four children I have lived through sleepless nights, toddlers who no longer nap – those precious moments when I could use the bathroom and open the mail without a “helper”, and now – teenagers whose circadian rhythms tell them to live like vampires. Sleep – the constant in our lives that we all need, but we aren’t always sure how to get, or how much we really need.
New research about sleep and children fascinates me as a parent – and is a reminder to me that when my kids are tired (even those vampire teens), that I should just let them rest. Rarely are kids actually, well, lazy, and just sleeping for the pure laziness of it. In fact, their need for sleep could signal that their brains are working overtime – and becoming stronger.
Dr. Ines Wilhelm from the University of Tübingen’s Institute for Medical Psychology and Behavioral Neurobiology, along with other Swiss and German scientists, have recently released the results of an intriguing new look at sleep in Nature Neuroscience. The results of their research shows that:
- Sleep is when our brains process what we have learned during the day.
- Children experience this process more effectively than adults do.
- Sleep provides the opportunity to build long-term memory storage.
- When our children sleep, their memory function improves and paves the way for more learning activities in the future.
- During sleep knowledge that is implied becomes knowledge that is explicit. Did you ever wonder how you came to believe a belief so strongly? Your brain was working on transferring that implied information into actual information.
- Children tend to sleep more deeply at night, giving their brains the opportunities needed to reinforce what they have learned every day and remember it well the next day.
Dr. Wilhelm and her colleagues conducted studies where children between the ages of 8 and 11 years and a group of young adults were given a short task testing their abilities to predict which step would come next in a series based upon what had already occurred in the series. Then the subjects were tested the following day and the results showed that those subjects who had an adequate amount of sleep were much more capable of remembering the information. Those who did not sleep, or did not sleep well, scored much lower on the test.
While this might not seem surprising to you – consider how we parent, and the pace at which our society expects our children to function. If we absolutely agree that sleep improves our brain functions, why are we making the schedules of children to increasingly limit the sleep they can acquire?
It is fairly common knowledge that teens like to sleep – they just don’t like to go to bed. Studies have also shown that teenagers are naturally wired so that their bodies and brains need to stay awake later and night and sleep longer in the morning. But then we meet them with before school hockey practice, early starts at high schools, and Pep Squad meetings 30 minutes before school starts.
Homeschooled Children Have Healthier Sleep Habits
Another recent study supports these findings, and is one of the first to look at a new and growing population of students in America – those who are homeschooled. Lisa Meltzer Ph.D. from National Jewish Health in Denver led a study that looked at the sleep differences among 2,612 (including roughly 500 who are homeschooled) teenagers who experience different forms of education. The results clearly showed that teenagers who are homeschooled have healthier habits for sleeping than their peers who attend public or private schools.
- Homeschooled teenagers on average get 90 minutes more of sleep each night.
- Students who attend public or private schools are in class an average of 18 minutes before a typical homeschooled teenager is even awake for the day.
- 55% of homeschool teenagers get the optimal amount of sleep each night, compared to just 24% of those students in private or public schools.
“We have a school system that is set up so that the youngest children, who are awake very early in the morning, start school latest, and our adolescents, who need sleep the most, are being asked to wake up and go to school at a time when their brains should physiologically be asleep… That cumulative sleep deprivation adds up…The ability to learn, concentrate and pay attention is all diminished when you haven’t had enough sleep. But more than that, a lack of sleep can also impact a teenager’s mood and their ability to drive early in the morning.”
Meltzer reminds us as parents that it is not just as easy as sending our kids to bed earlier each night. Those biological clocks actually do know what they are doing, and sleep needs for teens typically shifts two hours later into the evening during puberty. So when my teenagers tell me, “I’m just not tired!” as I implore them to head to bed before midnight, they are actually listening to their bodies. Meltzer says that the natural choice is to let teenagers sleep later during the day.
What Can We Do?
Meltzer and her colleagues urge parents and school officials to look at the science behind the data. If we are really striving to build strong, competent, intuitive, and successful students, we need to accept that their sleep needs (and how we respond to them) will determine that.
In schools where high school start times have been adjusted to accommodate the physiological facts about teenage brains, there are several benefits reported.
- Students are tardy less often, resulting in less wasted time in consequential activities for tardiness (i.e. detention).
- Graduation rates are higher.
- Children score better on tests.
So the next time I am tempted to wake my teenage son so he isn’t late for Algebra – I’m going to let him be tardy. He’s homeschooled – so I’ll just have to have a parent-teacher conference. The kids are used to seeing me talk to myself and are good with it. (But if I start to use character voices I’m sure the magic will wear off quickly.)