What Happens When Kids Are Sleeping?

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The parents start slowly closing the bedroom door and say, “Good night. Have sweet dreams” to their children. A little while later they look into the bedroom and see both of their children looking peaceful and sleeping soundly.

While most parents know that their children need to get a good night’s rest, they may not realize that children’s sleep is not as relaxing as it appears. Sleep does provide the body a time to restore itself but the brain does not totally shut down at night. In fact, some very important things are happening in the brain while children sleep.

One of the most important brain activities that occurs in the night is memory consolidation. Sleep is the time when the brain can review all of the new information that was encountered during the day and start to organize it so it can be found in the future.

A good way to look at it is the information that children gain throughout the day is a first draft which can be changed based on new information that is received. Sleep allows children to finish the editing process and make the information into a memory that is more stable since no new information is coming in.

Once the memory has been finalized, it is time to create links to prior memories. This linking is extremely important as memories are useless if there is no way to access them. Every memory can be linked in a variety of ways. One link may occur based on the content of the memory, whereas another can occur based on where the memory happened. This is why the smell of cookies may remind people of going to grandma’s house or it could make them remember the recipe for making cookie dough.

The brain is still not done processing memories, even after it creates links between them. The final step is to look for hidden themes or rules that are not readily apparent during the day. This process of abstraction is the reason why people can go to sleep at night struggling to solve a problem and then wake up with the answer.

In addition to consolidating memories, the brain is also cleaning up during sleep. All of that information and new memories takes a lot of work to process. That work creates trash that needs to be cleaned up for the brain to work effectively. During the day, the brain is too busy with all of the new information to clean up very well. It would be like trying to sweep the streets in the middle of rush hour. Sleep allows the traffic to die down and makes it easier for the brain to sweep the streets clean and be ready for the next day.

Sleep is important for all people but particularly children. Think of all of the activities and new information that children encounter on a typical school day. The brain has a lot to process, consolidate and link during sleep. In order to be most effective, children need to receive between 10-12 hours of sleep each night.

Every night children fail to get the necessary amount of sleep means the brain is less effective in processing all of the information learned during the day. This can result in children struggling in school and developing behavioral problems. Avoid these problems and get your children to bed early, their brains will thank you.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on January 10, 2015

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