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Children’s lack of sleep can mean trouble grasping new ideas, Notre Dame research shows

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You’ve purchased the new backpack, pencils and notebooks in preparation for the new school year. But there’s one school necessity you may have overlooked that can have a profound effect on your child’s ability to learn: adequate sleep.

Research from the University of Notre Dame shows that too little sleep causes more than crankiness and tantrums: it also results in the inability to process new ideas and be creative.

Jessica Payne

“If children are deprived of adequate sleep, their brains are not as able to make the kinds of connections necessary for learning new ideas,” says Notre Dame Psychologist Jessica Payne, whose research focuses on sleep, memory and creativity.

“Sleeping allows you to take what you’ve learned, especially new things you’ve learned, and recombine those bits and pieces of information into novel ways that allow you to have creative insights, make inferences, and extrapolate across large amounts of information and extract the gist, “ says Payne.

“Sleep is a protected time, too. Instead of taking in information, it’s a time to process it,” Payne says.

Back to school for most children means that their summer sleep schedules should be readjusted in order that they get adequate sleep for optimal learning in the classroom. But staying up late to watch television isn’t the only obstacle to a restful night. The computer shares much of the blame.

“Not only are children stimulated by the content of computer games, but there’s also the issue of light,” Payne explains. “There’s evidence that even low levels of light from a computer can change your circadian rhythm.”

How much sleep is enough? Though every child is different, in general, it’s recommended that young children (1 to 3 years) should sleep 12 to 14 hours; children (3 to 5 years) should get 11 to 13 hours; while school-aged children (first through fifth grades) should be sleeping 10 to 11 hours.

A child’s lack of sleep not only will cause problems in the classroom, but their creativity will be stunted and may have grave consequences down the line, according to Payne.

“Sleep helps you pick out the pieces of information that are essential and put them together in new and interesting ways, which is the definition of creativity,” she says.

So why is the loss of creativity such a problem? A recent Newsweek cover story titled “The Creativity Crisis” delivered the bad news that there has been a decline in creativity in our society, beginning in the early 1990s.

“At a time when innovation and creativity are so important for our society, particularly in the business world, sleep is critical. We don’t give sleep the respect it deserves. It’s an essential process — just as much so as eating, breathing or exercising,” says Payne, who consults with businesses around the country on the connection between adequate sleep and sound business decisions.

Contact: Jessica Payne, 574-631-1636,