Most of us love sleeping but we also believe that we don't get enough sleep. Despite this we'll probably sleep for the equivalent of about 25-30 years across our lives. Plenty of experiments show that the sleep quality and quantity affects our memory, our cognition and our behaviour. This is so much so that some researchers even say that how well young people sleep is the main predictor of their academic performance.
No surprise, then, that the Bell House speaker, Dr Frances Knight, is a huge fan of good sleep. She is based at the UCL Institute of Education researching the effects of good and bad sleep, and looks at ways to improve our sleep - especially in children. Fran has studied the different types of sleep that are needed such as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and SWS (Slow Wave Sleep), and how long we sleep in each of these cycles as we age.
Fran Knight's "good sleep guide" suggests that the most important steps for parents are:
- Establish a routine and stick to it
- Arrange the bedroom so that it is a "sleep haven"
- Keep the bedroom media-free
- Avoid exciting video games in the hour before bedtime
- Beware sugary or caffeinated drinks
- Make sure your child exercises regularly but not just before bedtime
Good sleep appears to have a number of important functions including memory consolidation, helping with recovery from injuries, clearing waste and promoting growth. In contrast, bad sleep leads to impaired attitudes and poor cognitive functioning; it can lead to challenging behaviour and emotional problems. Fran Knight described some experiments where people take tests before and after sleep and they consistently performed better in the morning, after a good night of sleep.
One way to help children improve their sleep is an app that UCL are developing called Mobero Intervention which promotes healthy sleep, especially targeted at children and teenagers with ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder). This app helps cement a good routine that both parents and children can be involved in, with a rewards-based system for good behaviour. Fran also considered the idea that certain foods may help - such as almond nuts and brazil nuts - and some music may help such as theta wave and delta wave music.
As usual with Bell House talks there was, after the talk, a lot of discussion with the speaker and between members of the audience. One woman told me about how her 9 year-old son has built up anxiety about sleep and refuses to go to sleep without her sleeping with him. Fran suggested a technique called "phasing" where you can progressively, over a few days, get your child to sleep - initially staying with them in bed until they are asleep and then staying with them in bed until they are almost asleep, then staying seated in the room until they are asleep and finally leaving them to sleep alone. It was widely agreed that apart from being a possible short term solution, sleeping pills tend to be very disruptive to sleep patterns in the medium and long run.
Watch our film HELPING CHILDREN SLEEP Highlights of a talk given by Dr. Frances Knight at Bell House, about ways to help your child sleep.