How Many Hours of Sleep Should a Child Get for Academic Performance?

It’s after dinner and your child has a test in class tomorrow. You sense that they’re probably a little underprepared. They’re tired and don’t want to stay up late studying. What should you do?

The study versus sleep dilemma is one that all students (and parents) will confront at one time or another during the schooling years, particularly as children go through adolescence and seem to want to sleep all the time! Sleep, or a lack of it, has a profound effect on academic performance. In order to give your child the best chance of success, it is important to understand the role sleep plays in humans, and in particular, how it can impact learning and functioning.

So, Why is Sleep SO Important?

As human beings, we need sleep in order for our body to re-energise its cells and clear waste from the brain. When completed successfully, this process enables us to feel sharp and switched on the next day, and therefore allows us to better engage with the demands of our lives. With respect to how sleep impacts a child’s academic performance, two factors play a crucial role: the amount of sleep a child receives, and the regularity of a child’s sleep pattern.

How Much Sleep Do Children Need?

Research suggests that children and teenagers need between 8 and 10 hours of sleep each night in order to grow and function properly. Unfortunately in Australia, however, they tend to average just 6.5-7.5 hours, and this is problematic for a number of reasons.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, too short a sleep reduces the time a person spends in slow wave sleep. During slow wave sleep, the brain replays information learned and processed during waking hours, allowing the brain to store this information in its long-term memory. If a person does not spend adequate time in this stage of sleep, it can compromise their capacity for memory consolidation and information retention.

Secondly, sleep deprivation can negatively affect a child’s mental well-being, including increasing the risk of depression and anxiety. This, in turn, can weaken a student’s level of engagement with schooling, with their grades suffering as a result.

Lastly, too little sleep can cause a reliance on caffeinated beverages and foods high in sugar, as students look to combat tiredness with a quick energy boost. These dietary choices have their own drawbacks, but with respect to academic performance, they can cause fluctuations in concentration and also affect a child’s sleep cycle. Which brings us to the matter of the regularity of a student’s sleep pattern…

What Does Melatonin Do?

Our brains naturally produce a chemical called melatonin. Melatonin controls the feeling of tiredness, and helps to regulate our body clock. A relic from our Neanderthal ancestry, the production of melatonin is heavily linked to the amount and timing of light exposure a person receives. For ancient peoples, this process enabled humans to sensibly align their body clocks with the rising and setting of the sun. In modern times, however, technological innovations ranging from the humble lightbulb through to televisions and smartphones have interrupted this cycle by introducing sources of light into our routines outside of daylight hours. As a result, the body’s production of melatonin has gotten out of sync with the natural rhythm of daylight. Compared with humanity’s ancestors, we tend to get tired much later in the evening, and feel more groggy and out of it early in the morning. When it comes to school then, the average student is unlikely to reach optimal brain functioning capacity until the middle of the day, effectively compromising their ability to learn and perform for the first half of each school day. That’s 50% of class time negatively impacted!

What’s the solution?

Should your child cram into the early hours, or are they best off getting a good night’s sleep? In short, their best bet is to get to bed at a reasonable hour. Of course, time needs to be made for study, but if they don’t sleep long enough for this information to be stored properly by the brain, or they are not adequately awake and alert come test time, research suggests it may be self-defeating. The trick to optimising your child’s academic performance is to ensure they receive at least 8 hours of sleep each night, and maintain a regular sleeping pattern.