Head of School Blog

Sleeping to Learn

Jill Singleton
I don’t know about you, but the snap of cold weather does not invigorate or enliven me, it makes we want to curl up under my warm covers and sleep. The dark days of winter contribute to this desire to sleep, so I find myself going to bed even earlier than usual. This change in my nighttime routine has heightened my awareness of my high school son’s sleeping routines, which would surely make a sleep scientist wince. With my other son home from college this past month, it has felt like two distinct shifts taking place in our home – my husband’s and mine, and the nocturnal life of our boys.
While the precise role of sleep remains a fascinating mystery for research scientists, current theories suggest that sleep plays a critical role in learning and memory. According to Dr. Ronald Dahl of the University Of Pittsburgh, “It might be argued that the most fundamental requirements for healthy growth and development in young children include: a) loving support and protection by parents/caretakers, b) adequate nutrition, and c) adequate sleep.” Sleep not only provides an opportunity for rejuvenation, but it is now thought to contribute to brain plasticity by reinforcing learning and memory. According to a paper published by the Division of Sleep Medicine atHarvardMedicalSchool, studies conducted on animals and humans suggest that the amount and quality of sleep one experiences can have a “profound impact on learning and memory” in two distinct ways. First, a sleep-deprived person cannot focus attention optimally and therefore cannot learn efficiently. Second, sleep itself has a role in the consolidation of memory, which is essential for learning new information. How does this happen? According to Dr. Marcos Frank, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, once asleep, “the brain engages intra- and intercellular communication pathways, releasing a series of enzymes that could reorganize the appropriate neurons.” This process allows for memories to be formed, ideas to be solidified, and new neural pathways to be created.

Personally, I use sleep as a tool for problem-solving and creative thinking. When I have a particular challenge to solve that my conscious mind just can’t seem to puzzle through while awake, I challenge my brain to wrestle with the problem in sleep. More often than not, I awake to a solution so simple and elegant I’m stumped as to why I wasn’t able to see it the day before.

So how much sleep do we need? How much sleep do our children need? According to the National Sleep Foundation, there is no magic number, which allows ample room for individual differences and lifestyles. However, a general rule of thumb follows:

• Newborns (0-2 months): 12-18 hours
• Infants (3-11 months): 14-15 hours
• Toddlers (1-3 years): 12-14 hours
• Preschoolers (3-5 years): 11-13 hours
• School-age children (5-10 years): 10-11hours
• Teens (10-17): 8.5-9.25 hours
• Adults: 7-9 hours

While there may be no magic number, knowing your children’s needs and being mindful about bedtime habits and routines is sound advice for all parents. Clearly, adequate sleep affects the quality of our lives. Being well-rested is generally associated with more positive moods and behavior, in addition to contributing to memory and learning. While the study of sleep will no doubt continue for years to come, the research is compelling enough that we need to consider sleep as a parenting issue that requires at least as much attention as healthy eating and good schooling.

Now, if only I can figure out how to get my 17-year-old into bed before midnight…!

Thoughts? Comments? Ideas? I’d love to hear them! Email me: jsingleton@allsaintshoboken.com

To read more from the articles cited above:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1978403/
http://mindevolve.com/brain-neuroplasticity/neuroscience/sleep-and-brain-plasticity/

http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep/learning-memory

http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/how-sleep-works/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need

Also, don’t miss the Parent Information Session on Your Child’s Brain with Dr. Yellin, January 30, 7:00pm at the St. Nicholas Center.
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