A series of recent studies has given sleep scientists a new source of optimism about the future of sleep, and that source is children. One of the most difficult factors to overcome in our national (and international) struggle with sleep is the fact that people simply do not give the research enough credence. They may read it with interest and even be willing to try out getting a couple of extra hours of sleep to see whether it makes them feel better or work more efficiently, but when push comes to shove, sleep is still one of the very first things that people are willing to sacrifice in the face of social opportunities, work deadlines, and even a video game or really compelling novel.
All that being said, there is hope that by educating today’s children about the importance of sleep, the cycle of dismissing sleep’s importance may be broken and society may return to the days when people were getting the amount of restorative sleep that they needed. One of the ways to make this happen is to stop using going to bed as a punishment, and at the same time to start telling children why they need a good night’s sleep. In the same way that we explain to them that eating their vegetables is important because it makes their body big and strong and that cutting out sugary drinks is good because they make them gain too much weight or are bad for their teeth, we need to explain to kids all of the benefits that a good night’s sleep can give them. And what exactly are those benefits?
The ways that sleep benefits a body are myriad, and research is constantly recording new ones. Sleep helps the body restore its energy and the mind to restore its creative and cognitive abilities. It’s during sleep that our body’s cells repair themselves and form the memories that last for our entire lives. Sleep throws away extraneous information and categorizes and keeps what is important, helping us to learn new things and make important connections in the future. Sleep also helps us to learn – a particularly important benefit for children, whether they are working on learning math equations or the right way to complete a dive, a backflip, or the perfect spiral pass.
What researchers have found is that when children are taught that sleep is important, and taught why, they take it very much to heart. In two separate studies done on seventh grade students who participated in a “sleep smart” program, researchers found that the students started going to bed earlier and sleeping longer on school nights. A similar study conducted by the University of Michigan Sleep Disorders Center found that four-year olds enrolled in Head Start programs in Lansing and Detroit and who enrolled in a program called Sweet Dreamzzz was equally successful.
What distinguished the program run by Sweet Dreamzzz was the fact that its outreach went beyond simply educating the students. Parents of children in the study were also provided with a 45-minute educational session on the importance of sleep and establishing a bedtime routine. The children’s teachers were also provided with instruction about optimal sleep time for preschoolers, but the majority of the education was devoted to the students themselves, who received a full two weeks of daily in-school activities which were also supplemented by homework. The at-home activities included putting a teddy bear to bed, while in class they read classic bedtime stories and were then given copies of those stories to bring home with them. The idea that 8:00 was the best time to go to bed was heavily stressed. Thirty days after the program’s end the children were reported to be getting an additional half an hour of sleep each night, an amount that can make a significant difference in cognitive ability, mood, and impulsive behavior.
What was perhaps most important in the impact of the program is that when tested a month later, the children’s parents showed no greater knowledge about the importance of sleep, but the information had stuck with their children. The study’s author, Dr. Ronald Chervin, theorizes that the single 45-minute session may not have been enough, though he and his colleagues also think there’s a possibility that educating the parents may not be necessary, and that educating the children may be enough. Following the program, many children were quick to volunteer information that they had learned, including facts about healthy bedtime snacks and when the best time was to go to television, as well as what the right activities were for before bedtime.
As school districts around the country mull over the possibility of shifting their starting times to allow students more time to sleep, they encounter pushback from parents who argue that it will interfere with other activities. Business leaders continue to brag about the tiny amount of sleep that they personally require to operate their multi-billion dollar companies, and articles appear with regularity about the millenials who roll in after a night out on the town and then simply continue on to their work day without ever getting any sleep. The idea of creating a paradigm shift in children may be the answer to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called an epidemic of sleep deprivation. By approaching the issue of sleep and instructing children at the earliest stages of its importance (health professionals have put sleep on the same level as nutrition and exercise), we may finally have found a way to make society embrace getting the rest we need as a priority. When people get enough sleep, they tend to improve their overall health as well as their cognitive ability. People who get adequate sleep have a lower risk for obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mood disorders. When it comes to sleep deprivation, the children may indeed be the future.