Stress, Sleep and Exams-Your Child Needs Your Help

Written by Isha Chakraborty

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6 mins read

It is your child’s half-yearly exams and there is tension in the house – you are anxious and your child is stressed. You are working hard with your kid revising the study material and the repetitions of the math formulae can be heard from the living room – loud and clear!

However, despite the hard yards that you and your child are putting in, nervous anxiety is palpable – your child is making mistakes repeatedly and you are not sure if they would be able to perform well on the day of the exam. At the same time, your child is feeling the heat and maybe silently blaming you for all the woes!

But – amidst the stressful commotion which accompanies exams, are you as a parent forgetting something important? 

Are you checking the amount of sleep your child is getting before and during their exams and the quality of the sleep that they’re getting?

So why does your child need adequate sleep?

Exams can easily take a toll on your child’s sleep pattern – throwing it off balance with late-night revisions and early morning practice sessions.

Just like revising and eating healthy constitutes an important part of your child’s exam preparation, sleep should not be ignored. Contrary to previous beliefs, sleep is actually an active process – when your child is sleeping, their brains work to heal the body by producing essential hormones that are needed for repair and growth. 

On the other hand, acute sleep deprivation can cause tension-anxiety, mood disturbances, confusion and physical/mental fatigue among children. Research studies indicate that sleep deprivation increases depressive symptoms in adolescents. 

In a review study conducted by Marta Kopasz and her colleagues (Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University Medical Center Freiburg), it was confirmed that sleep facilitates working memory as well as memory consolidation in children and adolescents. 

There is enough research evidence to support the hypothesis that “performance in complex tasks involving higher brain functions declines more strongly after sleep deprivation than the performance in simple memory tasks”. Also, adequate sleep is crucial for learning, memory and the underlying neural plasticity.

And as you may know: neural plasticity is the ability of neurons to transform ( in form and function) in response to changes in their environment. 

What do you know of the architecture of your child’s sleep?

Your child will usually go through four stages of sleep: Non-REM Stages 1,2 and 3, and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage. 

And, what happens in Stage 1?

This is the lightest stage of sleep your child goes through. In this stage, even the slightest of movements can throw your child’s sleep off. The muscles at this stage calm down, movement comes to a halt, there is slow movement in the eyeballs while brain activity slows down. 

Your child’s body is falling asleep as they progress to the next stage of sleep.

What happens in Stage 2? 

In this stage, the slow movement of the eyeballs comes to a stop and the brain activity continues to slow down There is a change in your child’s body temperature as it falls down with the rate of their heartbeat. 

This stage is deeper than Stage 1, and general noise has less to no effect on your child’s sleep.

What happens in Stage 3?

This is considered to be the deepest stage of the three Non-REM sleep cycles. The brain activity consists of slow and delta waves, while the movement comes to a complete halt. It is difficult to wake your child up from this stage of deep sleep.

This stage is also considered as the restorative phase of sleep.

What happens in REM stage?

The REM stage, often known as Rapid Eye Movement stage is the stage where your child’s dreams occur. This is also the stage where your child’s brain recaps events that happened throughout the day and stores important information in the brain’s memory storehouses. 

Sleep in this stage is lighter as compared to the other stages and it is easy for the child to wake up to the slightest of noise. 

Often if your child is woken up during a night of REM sleep, they may look and feel angry, agitated or groggy. 

But what about your child’s sleep and mental/academic performance?

Multiple sleep research studies have noted the effects of inadequate sleep on a child’s ability to complete their daily work. 

If your child didn’t sleep properly, they may show symptoms of daytime sleepiness and can also later manifest in behavior patterns making them agitated and moody over time. Lack of proper sleep has a direct effect on your child’s mental alertness as well. 

Independent research reveals that in comparison to children who started school early, children who started late had significantly greater amounts of sleep. For the former, this sleep deprivation manifested in the form of concentration issues and inability to pay attention.

What is the connection between performance, memory and sleep?

The human memory is divided into two parts – declarative and procedural memory.

Procedural knowledge comprises of memories of how to perform some skills or how to solve a problem (‘knowing how’). These memories, which may pertain to the motor, visual or even verbal domain, are usually unconsciously learned. 

Declarative memories usually refer to memories that are easily accessible to conscious recollection.

For your child to be able to form and use declarative memories, it is important that they get adequate sleep. It is during your child’s sleep stages that they make memories and store information that they can later recall when the time comes.

If your child is trying to learn something new or revise before an important exam, they will actually perform better after getting some good sleep. Getting enough sleep also helps keep your child mentally alert and happy.

So, how many hours of sleep does your child need?

The sleep requirement for your child will vary according to age – their sleep requirement will eventually decrease as they grow old. The Sleep Foundation suggests the following sleeping hours for your child:

What is the secret to getting a good night’s sleep?

Getting a good night’s sleep is no rocket science. In fact, you can maintain a sleep hygiene and simply switch some things in your immediate environment to ensure you and your child get the best sleep.

There are three key components of the physical environment that need to be considered in order for your child to get a good night’s sleep – light, noise and temperature.

Proper lighting matters: Before bedtime, make sure your child is not exposed to light coming from electronics such as TV’s, electronic tablets, light coming from nightlights, street lights and hallway lighting.

These lights, especially the blue spectrum light from electronics,interferes with your child’s sleep pattern and can have a negative effect on their quality of sleep. Specifically, melatonin (the sleep hormone) is suppressed by the blue light emanating from the environment.

This can then lead to abrupt awakenings, loss of sleep and an overall negative mood the morning after.

Keep it quiet: Even the most ambient of household noise can break your child’s sound sleep. According to The World Health Organization, the general noise levels should remain under 30 decibels when your child is about to get some shut eye. 

However, normal conversations that can be heard at a range of 1 to 1.5 meters (approximately 3–5 feet) fall into a 60-decibel range.

If you feel that keeping the noise level low will be difficult, you can use sounds that are slightly louder than 30 decibels. 

Such sounds must be either brown or pink – these noises dampen the high frequency sounds and provide a deeper, richer hearing experience leading to a more restful sleep (e.g. recordings or rain falling on the pavement, roaring waterfall and the sound of ocean waves). 

Temperature: Body temperature has an impact on the sleep center of the brain in that it can influence whether the brain instructs your child to go to sleep or become. 

It is recommended that you keep your child’s bedroom slightly cool to avoid core body temperature warming. 

Theoretically speaking, regulation of temperature is important – else,elevated core body temperature may interfere with your child’s physiological processes that regulate their internal body clock (circadian rhythms). 

What’s the best pre-bedtime ritual you should follow for your child?

  • Make sure your child is not in front of the computer screen or a mobile device at least 60 mins before bed time.
  • Keep relaxing activities such as reading a story or listening to gentle music apart from their usual bedtime routine.
  • Don’t give heavy snacks or too much fluids to your child before they hit the bed. You can however, give them a light snack or some juice or milk before they sleep. 

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