Why Zzz’s Are as Vital as ABC’s

“But I don’t want to go to bed!” That’s my three-year-old’s nightly mantra. It turns out that toddlers and middle school students have a lot in common: the desire for independence, incredible physical and cognitive growth spurts .  . . and bodies and brains that need a lot of sleep, even when they don’t want it.

Often, middle schoolers think they can stay up late with little consequence.  But research shows that adolescents actually need more sleep to perform at their best than either elementary-age children or adults.

Here are three compelling reasons why middle school kids should get a good night’s sleep.

1. Lack of Sleep Harms Academic Performance

Research shows that sacrificing sleep for studying can be counterproductive. Why? Sleep has a cleansing effect on the brain. When we sleep, we replay and consolidate what happened during the day – and make room for new learning. As one researcher notes, “If you didn’t get a good night’s sleep it’s really hard to learn new things because you didn’t clear out all the synaptic connections.” In fact, a study out of Brown University and Holy Cross found that high school students who averaged C’s and D’s went to bed roughly 40 minutes later than those who averaged A’s and B’s.

2. Sleep Deprivation Makes Kids Cranky (or Worse)

In a Psychology Today article, Dr. Nancy Darling writes, “Middle schoolers often live in a state of chronic sleep deprivation  . . .  just like toddlers, when adolescents are tired and hungry, they get CRANKY.”  Maybe, just maybe, you’ve experienced this first hand!

There’s another layer of concern, however, beyond orneriness: Lack of sleep may increase teenagers’ risk of depression.  According to research out of the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, adolescents who don’t get sufficient sleep are four times more likely to develop major depressive disorders than their well-rested peers. The study’s lead author suggests, “Kids should go to bed at a regular time. They should wake up at a regular time. They should have a dark room if possible — that means no TV, no games, no phones.”

3. Dreamtime is Learning Time

Sleep is not just rest – our brains are still actively learning when we are in a dream state. In an article called “Can You Learn While You Sleep?” Annie Murphy Paul writes,

Scientists have found that dreaming about a task we’ve learned is associated with improved performance in that activity (suggesting that there’s some truth to the popular notion that we’re “getting” a foreign language once we begin dreaming in it). What’s more, researchers are coming to recognize that dreaming is an essential part of understanding, organizing and retaining what we learn . . . While we sleep, research indicates, the brain replays the patterns of activity it experienced during waking hours, allowing us to enter what one psychologist calls a neural virtual reality.

For example, a study out of Harvard asked students to work on a computer maze –  and then take a nap.  Students who reported dreaming about the maze during this nap improved their ability to navigate 10-fold compared to students who did not dream about the task.

So if your child is having a hard time putting down their studies to get some rest, tell them that their brain may very well keep studying as they sleep – and no matter what, their body and brain will thank them in the morning.

photo credit: Big Ben in Japan Contentment via photopin (license)

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