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3 min read

Sleep: the importance of a good night’s rest for children

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Not getting enough sleep can have a big impact on children. Even one night of insufficient sleep can cause youngsters to be tired and irritable the next day. But why exactly is getting enough shuteye so vital for children, and how much sleep do they really need? Keep reading to find out.

Why is sleep important for children?

At a basic level, we all understand that sleep matters for children. This is especially the case when they will be getting up early the next day, for example, to go to school. Everyone knows what it’s like to feel tired after a poor night’s rest, so it’s not hard to see why students would suffer as a result of a lack of sleep. Beyond just feeling tired, though, there are various ways that a lack of rest can impact youngsters - and some of them may surprise you.

Students who struggle with sleep may have more mental health incidents

It’s now widely recognised that getting enough sleep is essential for the healthy development of young minds. The Sleep Foundation, a source of medically-reviewed sleep health information, notes that levels of rest in children have been shown to impact a wide range of health indicators, including

  • Alertness
  • Mood
  • Resiliency
  • Learning ability
  • Memory
  • Vocabulary acquisition
  • Cognitive performance
  • Physical growth (especially in early childhood)

One study, led by Dr Ze Wang of the University of Maryland and published in 2022 in Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, compared more than 4,000 nine and 10-year-olds who regularly got nine or more hours of sleep per night with a similar number of youngsters who typically got less than this recommended level of rest. The researchers ensured they matched the two sets of participants across a range of other key factors that could impact the results, including household income, sex and puberty status, and they assessed and tracked the children over a period of two years. The results were stark.

Youngsters who have less than 9 hours sleep a night could have reduced brain function

They discovered that the group that registered insufficient sleep had more behavioural and mental health challenges than those who got the recommended amount of shuteye. For example, they were more prone to stress, anxiety, depression, aggression and thinking problems. They also experienced impairments in cognitive functions, such as working memory, learning, conflict solving and decision making.

This may mean that students who regularly get less sleep than they should are more likely to have mental health incidents or concerns recorded in school.

Even the brains of the two groups were shown to differ. Youngsters who got less than nine hours of sleep a night at the beginning of the study had a reduced amount of grey matter compared with those who had healthy sleep habits. This difference persisted after two years.

Another recent study, this a Norwegian longitudinal population-based study published in PloS One, found that school-aged children who experienced persistent difficulties falling and staying asleep had poorer academic performance than those who didn’t have sleep problems.

Of course, these studies don’t guarantee that all children with sleep problems will perform poorly at school. It doesn’t mean that children who sleep well at night will always be top of the class, either. However, if a student isn’t performing as expected and shows other potential signs of sleep disruption in the classroom, it may be that improving their sleep helps to reduce these effects.

Children who struggle with sleep may struggle with academic progress

How many hours of sleep do children need?

It’s clear that sleep is essential for children. But what exactly constitutes a good night’s rest? Well, this differs depending on the age of students. As a general guide, the NHS recommends that children aged six to 13 typically need nine to 12 hours of shuteye per night. Younger children generally need more. For example, three to five-year-olds need 10 to 13 hours on average. On the other hand, teenagers generally need eight to 10 hours.

what are the NHS sleep recommended hours for children?

Encouraging youngsters to get enough sleep can be challenging, especially with all the distractions that modern life brings. However, for some children, getting enough rest is particularly difficult. This includes those who suffer from sleep conditions such as:

  • Sleep apnoea (a condition that means the walls of the throat relax and narrow when people sleep, interrupting normal breathing and sleep patterns)
  • Insomnia
  • Night terrors
  • Sleep walking
  • Restless legs syndrome

If one or more of these conditions affects a child’s sleep significantly, then their parents may benefit from visiting a GP or other healthcare practitioner to get advice on how the problem can be tackled.

Why not talk to one of our experts?

Book Demo

Teachers may be among the first to notice if students are showing signs of getting too little sleep. In some cases, the medical reports and insights recorded via electronic health records help to highlight concerning patterns in student wellbeing that could signify a sleep issue.

If teachers or other members of staff are concerned about students’ sleeping habits, their first step should be to contact the parents or carers to discuss the issue.

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