We tell children why it’s important to eat their vegetables. We tell them why they need to get outside and run around. But how often do we parents tell children why it’s important to sleep? “Time for bed!” is usually the end of it, or maybe “You’ll be tired tomorrow.” No wonder children regard sleep as vaguely punitive, an enforced period of dull isolation in a darkened room. But of course sleep is so much more, and maybe we ought to try telling children that.
Sleep, scientists have discovered, not only restores and renews the body, but it also performs maintenance on the mind. It refines the memories formed during the previous day and makes preparations for the learning that will begin the next morning. Irrelevant memories are discarded and important memories are preserved, moved to the brain’s long-term storage to make room for new memories. (One sleep specialist, Matthew Walker of the University of California, Berkeley, has compared the function of sleep with emptying an email inbox so that it can receive new messages.) Researchers have also found that newly learned information and skills are reinforced by a good night’s sleep — meaning that children are becoming better at their soccer footwork, their piano playing, or their times tables just by lying asleep in bed.
There is evidence that educating children about the importance of sleep leads them to sleep more. Two studies conducted with seventh graders, for example, found that after participating in a “sleep smart” program, they went to bed earlier and slept longer on weeknights. The latest proof of the value of sleep education comes from a newly released study of preschoolers. Led by Ronald Chervin, the director of the University of Michigan Sleep Disorders Center, the study examined the effects of a program called Sweet Dreamzzz on 152 4-year-olds enrolled in Head Start programs in Lansing and Detroit.
The strength of the Sweet Dreamzzz initiative is that it creates a triangle of support for sleep, involving children, their teachers and their parents. Mothers and fathers enrolled in the program were offered a 45-minute education session, addressing topics such as the importance of sleep, how to establish a bedtime routine and how much sleep preschoolers need each night: 11 to 13 hours. (Lack of knowledge about children’s sleep is common among parents, Dr. Chervin and his co-authors note; as many as 75 percent incorrectly estimate how much sleep children require.) Teachers, too, were provided with an instructional session.
The preschoolers received two weeks of daily education sessions, as well as supporting activities at home. The children were each given a teddy bear, which they practiced “putting to bed”; they read the bedtime classic “Goodnight Moon” in class, and were given a copy of the book to take home; and they went over the notion that 8 p.m. was the right time to go to bed. All this information-sharing produced concrete results: A month after the conclusion of the Sweet Dreamzzz program, the children in the study were getting 30 minutes of additional sleep each night, according to sleep diaries kept by their parents. Other research has shown that an additional half-hour of sleep can make a big difference, reducing daytime sleepiness, emotional ups and downs and restless and impulsive behavior.
The increase in the duration of the Michigan children’s sleep occurred even though (to researchers’ surprise) the parents involved in the study didn’t demonstrate a greater knowledge of sleep facts a month later. Perhaps one 45-minute session wasn’t enough to make the information stick, Dr. Chervin and his co-authors speculated.
Or perhaps it was simply most effective to talk directly and often to the children themselves. Although the researchers didn’t formally assess change in the children’s knowledge about sleep, teachers reported that the preschoolers did learn from the sessions: After the intervention, the children correctly volunteered that 8 p.m. was the right time to go to sleep, not 9 p.m.; that an apple was a better presleep snack than a candy bar; and that reading before bedtime was a better idea than watching TV. Most striking, the teachers told Dr. Chervin, parents came into school with reports of a new development: When the children saw the clock strike 8 p.m., they would now announce: “It’s time for bed!”
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