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Sleep and Learning by Dayna Zaik

Updated: Jun 6

About the Author

Hi, my name is Dayna Zaik, and I am a Sleep Consultant for children as well as an Early Childhood Educator who has spent my career working with children and supporting the needs of their parents.

While the majority of my clients are parents with children under the age of five, the truth is that sleep hygiene is critical to older children and teenagers. This is why I wanted to discuss sleep's affect on learning.

What is Sleep?

Sleep is a complete state of reduced mental and physical activity. It is where our bodies take the opportunity to repair and rejuvenate cells, organs, and muscles. It is where our minds relax, process new information, rid themselves of toxic waste and reorganize. Sleep supports healthy brain function as cells repair while the body restores energy.

The body does such amazing things for us, not only while we’re awake but also when we sleep. In fact, our immune system depends on sleep. It helps us fend off illnesses faster and at times, helps us avoid illness all together.

Sleep is not a luxury, it is a necessity!

What Causes Us To Sleep and Stay Wake?

There are two hormones which play a critical role on our bodies ability to sleep: melatonin and cortisol.

Melatonin production increases in the evening and causes us to get tired, fall asleep, and stay asleep throughout the night. Darkness helps increase and maintain melatonin production

Cortisol, the stress hormone, is produced in the early morning and flows through our brain all day, keeping us awake and alert.

Without melatonin, we would not sleep. Without cortisol, we would not be able to stay awake.

Let’s Talk About Melatonin

Melatonin is produced in the pineal gland. This gland lets in light and darkness. It is the melatonin-secreting neuroendocrine organ containing light sensitive cells that control the circadian rhythm. Without the pineal gland, your body wouldn’t be able to sleep or wake at the same time. Your body would also struggle to respond between changes in light levels. So maintaining a consistent schedule is key for a healthy pineal gland.

Some healthy foods that contain melatonin are:

  • eggs

  • fish

  • nuts

  • tart cherries

  • goji berries

  • milk

For animal food, Eggs and fish have some of the highest levels, whereas nuts contain the highest amounts of melatonin in plant-based foods.

Tart cherry juice also contains melatonin, and is regarded by some as an effective sleep aid. The following also contain melatonin:

  • mushrooms

  • cereals

  • germinated legumes

  • seeds

Aside from bright light, the color of light can also prevent melatonin production.

Which light color do you think is the worst?

That’s right, BLUE light!

Blue light actually blocks the production of melatonin. Where is blue light illuminated from?

  • TVs

  • cell phones

  • Ipads/tablets

  • light bulbs

  • computers

Blue light is found in fluorescent and LED lights, even when they appear white.

While lights during the day, whether at home or in the classroom, are not going to hinder your melatonin production, continuing to use bright lights on any of the devices listed above right before bed will.

This also includes night lights. So, what color is best?

RED light.

Removing screen time one hour or more before bed will allow for that melatonin to

produce quicker and more efficiently.

What’s better than screen time before bed, getting outside for a nice walk in the fresh air, catching the dimming sun and setting that circadian clock.

What is a Circadian Clock or Circadian Rhythm?

Your sleep-wake circadian rhythm is an internal clock (circadian clock) that runs

constantly. It cycles between alertness and sleepiness. It’s what helps our bodies regulate sleep patterns.

This is where having a consistent bedtime routine and schedule come in very handy.

Keeping your body on a regular wake up time and regular bedtime, will help regulate your circadian rhythm. Eventually, you will internally set the circadian clock where you will naturally wake and be ready for bed at a regular time.

But what happens if we don’t have a consistent schedule?

We can fall into being overtired.

And what happens when we’re overtired?

Our brains will not function well. We may experience “brain fog”. This is where we tend to not pay as much attention to detail, forget things, and have difficulty concentrating.

Something very common, especially with children, is that when we become overtired, we may experience nightmares or night terrors.

The Difference Between Nightmare & Night Terror

Both nightmares and night terrors can be caused from being overtired, but their are key differences.

Nightmares tend to focus on something disturbing, like a threat to safety, resulting in our bodies fight, flight, or freeze response. Such dreams might lead to a pounding heart, sweat, and difficulty falling asleep. Nightmares are often remembered.

Night Terrors, on the other hand, can result in more more intense symptoms, such as a flushed face and heavy breathing. Those who experience a night terror may be inconsolable, yet often have no memory of the event once they are fully awake.

Nightmares usually occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of our sleep cycle whereas night terrors tend to occur during a deeper stage of sleep known as stage 3.

What are Sleep Stages?

Sleep happens in 2 cycles. A sleep cycle can last anywhere from 90 to 110 minutes.

There is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, this stage happens after the first hour of

sleep but before the second hour. This is your first stage of sleep. It’s usually when you have vivid dreams.

Then there is NON-REM sleep. It has 3 stages, the last 2 stages are where you’re in a

deep sleep and hard to wake up.

What happens in REM-sleep?

This is where your brain activity picks up pace again. You may experience faster

breathing, increased heart rate and blood pressure and rapid eye movement. As night progresses, you have more REM-sleep. Most of the time we are able to self soothe and fall back asleep, so any wake ups during this time can be less memorable.

What happens during NON-REM sleep?

Stage 1: Everything slows down (muscles, eye movement, etc). If you were woken up,

you may not even know you had been sleeping.

Stage 2: Your heart rate slows, your body temperature drops and your body prepares for deep sleep.

Stage 3: This is deep sleep, everything is relaxed, you’re harder to wake up and if you are woken, you may feel groggy.

During this time your body builds bone and muscle, repairs and regenerates tissues and strengthens your immune system.

Being able to get these good, well rested sleep cycles, involve having a well established circadian rhythm, with a good production of melatonin and a healthy sleep foundation.

What is a Sleep Foundation?

A healthy sleep foundation is establishing a bedtime routine, a bedtime, self-soothing abilities, expectations around bedtime and a desired sleep environment.

Here are some important elements for a healthy sleep environment:

  • blackout curtains

  • noise machine (especially for younger children)

  • cooler temperature then the rest of the house

  • appropriate sleep wear/blankets

An Appropriate Daytime Schedule

For children 6 and older, an appropriate schedule during the school could look like this:

6-7am: Wake up

7-8am: Breakfast, get ready for school, pack backpack

9am-3:30pm: Most children are in school and run on the school schedule

4-5pm: Homework with the opportunity to get outside one last time

5-6pm: Dinner

7pm: Start bedtime routine

8pm: Bedtime

During summer months, something more along the lines of:

6-7am: Wake up

9am: Outdoor time

10am: Activities/academics

11am: Creativity

12pm: Lunch

1pm: Quiet time

2pm: Screen time

3pm: Snack

4pm: Outdoor time

5-6pm: Dinner

7pm: Start bedtime routine

8pm: Bedtime

It is important to stick to the same schedule during summer break as you would during the school year. This helps keep the circadian rhythm functioning the same and melatonin producing at the correct times.

A simple bedtime routine to follow could be:

  • bath

  • pajamas

  • snack

  • book

  • brush teeth

  • bathroom break

  • into bed

Some good sleep habits are:

  • daily exercise, stimulation, outdoor time, play time, etc

  • having a good sleep schedule

  • quiet activities before bed

  • good sleep environment

How Much Sleep Does My Child Need?

Children are all so very different. Some children need more sleep, whereas others need a little less. Here is a guide of how much sleep a child might need by age.

6 – 12 years old: 9-12 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period

13 – 18 years old: 8-12 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period

So you can adjust your typical schedule to meet the needs of your child by age. It is

understandable that most children have extracurricular activities throughout the year. This is where I highly recommend choosing activities wisely and sticking to 1 or 2 per year or season. Filling your child’s schedule full of stimulation and finding there be a lack of sleep, can be detrimental to their overall well being.

Having a full plate can cause that cortisol to rise and last longer, making the melatonin production start later, meaning your child may have a hard time falling asleep at bedtime. This will become a constant cycle and your child can end up in sleep debt.

Sleep debt is not something we can get back or catch up on. When we lose sleep, it’s gone forever.

Sleep is an important element for a healthy functioning body.

Sleep and Education

So, how does sleep link in with learning and education?

Getting the proper amount of sleep and having quality sleep is what’s going to help our children retain information, be alert and ready to learn, have healthy functioning brains and bodies, be able to regulate social and emotional skills, over-all mood will be better, their interests in learning will increase, their imaginations and creativity will flow more naturally, in addition to other benefits.

As parents, our focus shouldn't be so much on when school starts, so much as ensuring our children can wake up, attend school on time, and be ready to learn. Our role in ensuring successful learning is helping them create appropriate bedtime schedules, setting boundaries around sleep, and getting them to set their circadian clock accordingly.

This will help prepare them for adulthood where their may require them to start early. In other words, parents can model the skills they will need to use independently later in life.

While we should strive to start as young as we can to ensure our children are sleeping well, it’s also never too late to re-evaluate your sleep situation and start fresh.

-Dayna Zaik


Dayna has spent over twenty years working with and studying children and their families. As a sleep consultant, she has a passion for helping parents create sleep plans, individually tailored to the needs of each child. If you'd like to know more about Dayna's work, you can visit her website and book a free call through her website:

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