Sleep Tight!

More sleep helps children do better at school.

Oct 22, 2012 | By Alice Park for TIME
IAN MURRAY—GETTY IMAGES

Is sleep important for children? A new study says yes.

A new study published this week in the journal Pediatrics shows that children who do not get enough sleep have less control over emotions and are less focused at school.

As a whole, Americans do not get enough sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 10 to 11 hours of shut-eye per night for children ages 5 to 12. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this year found that about 41 million American workers get less than six hours of sleep per night. Now health experts worry that adults are passing their poor sleeping habits down to their children.

Reut Gruber is a psychologist and lead author of the new study. In the study, Gruber and other experts either added or subtracted one hour of sleep for healthy children ages 7 to 11. They observed the children over five nights. The goal was to see if small changes in the amount of sleep could affect a child’s behavior.

“Nobody became a genius, and nobody became crazy,” she said.  “But the findings show that in children small changes can make a big difference, and that is why this is meaningful.”

Sleeping on the Job

In a new study, students with less sleep were more cranky, frustrated and distracted.
DAVE & LES JACOBS—GETTY IMAGES
In a new study, students with less sleep were more cranky, frustrated and distracted.

Before the survey began, students were asked to sleep the same amount of hours as they normally would. Their teachers were asked to score the children on thoughtfulness, touchiness and emotional reactions. After five nights of the kids’ sleep changes, the teachers were asked to take the survey again. Compared with their original scores, those who slept one hour less had worse behavior scores than those who were allowed to sleep an hour more. Students with less sleep were more cranky, frustrated and had more problems paying attention. The children with more sleep showed improvement in these areas.

The scientists chose to study kids in their homes instead of inside a lab because they wanted to measure how everyday changes might affect children’s behavior in the classroom. One more movie or one less game played before bed can change the way children focus and work with their teachers and classmates, says Gruber.

If less sleep leads to a drop in attention in class, children may miss out on learning and chances to be creative. If they are easily irritated and frustrated because their bodies and brains are tired, they may not learn as much either, says Gruber.

More Sleep Science

In earlier research, Gruber and her team looked at children who were at different stages on the attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder spectrum. In a study, parents were asked to put these kids to bed about an hour later than they normally would. The children completed attention tests both before and after the sleep change. After the study, two-thirds of kids who were on the border of having a disease were diagnosed as having the disease. It was triggered by lack of sleep.

“Between these two studies, to me this connection feels like a real finding,” says Gruber. Sleep, it seems, is just as important as diet and exercise in keeping children’s bodies and minds healthy.

Good night!