Why Sleeping Before Exams Is Important For Children

A good night’s sleep plays an important role in improving exam scores. Here’s why your child should sleep well, especially before and during the exam season.

By Arun Sharma  • 14 min read

Why Sleeping Before Exams Is Important For Children
Come Sleep, O Sleep, the certain knot of peace,
The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release,
The indifferent judge between the high and low; — Sir Philip Sidney (Sonnet 39)

Sleep, an elixir of life, is essential for good health. In fact, good sleep is as important as healthy diet and exercise. Let’s take the case of Raju whose parents ensured he had nutritious food and sufficient physical activity —

It was 4:00 a.m. when Raju closed the physics book, switched off the light and went to sleep. He was appearing in the board exams and was determined to score good marks.

Raju’s mother woke him up at 7:30 a.m. Although feeling groggy, Raju got ready and left home confident of doing well in the exam that day.

Almost an hour later, he was sitting in the exam hall, looking at the question paper and struggling to recall all that he had studied the previous night. However hard he tried it was of no avail. His mind drew a complete blank. He was shocked and upset! How could this have happened? He had been so thorough in all the topics; he had not omitted any lesson. Yet, he could not remember a thing!

Raju’s is not a unique case. Such instances happen often to our children as neither parents nor children realise the importance of sleep during exams. Now, before we go into why sleeping before exams is important for children, let us look at what sleep is and why we need sleep.

What is sleep?

It is a state in which our body and mind are at rest. During this time, our eyes close, muscles relax and we display a lower level of response to any external stimuli. Most animals, including humans, go to sleep at night.

Amazing fact about sleep: On average, humans spend almost one-third, or 30%, of their life sleeping.

Why do we need sleep?

During the day, while awake, we are engaged in doing a lot of things, most of which are goal-directed activities.

Both our body and brain are involved in carrying out these activities. However, certain areas of the brain must work more than the others. This triggers the release of a chemical called adenosine, which signals the brain to slow down and rest. As a result, we begin to feel drowsy and fall asleep.

Sleep has a restorative effect on both the body and the brain. A sleeping individual’s heart rate slows down, breathing rate decreases, body temperature drops and muscles relax — all of which help conserve energy. Sleep also gives the brain a chance to restore itself back to health.

So, when we wake up in the morning, we feel calm, happy, hopeful and willing to face the world again.

Cutting down on sleep duration makes us feel lethargic, lowers our alertness and makes it difficult for us to focus. Prolonged lack of sleep or sleep deprivation can even lead to serious health problems like hypertension, memory loss and weakening of the immune system.

Interesting facts about sleep:

• Of all animals, only humans are capable of willingly delaying sleep.

• According to Philips Global Sleep Survey (2019), adults sleep 6.8 hours every night during weekdays and 7.8 hours during weekends. This is less than the recommended 8 hours every night.

What happens when we sleep?

What comes to your mind when you look at your sleeping child?

The calm expression on her face would tell you that, at that moment, she is free or detached from anxiety, worry and distress and is at peace with herself and the world.

So, does everything come to a standstill within us while we are asleep?

Not really. Here is what happens to our bodies when we sleep:

  • Muscles and joints: As mentioned above, although some of the body functions slow down, the cells keep regenerating. This way, the stressed and worn out muscles and joints are repaired during sleep.
  • Lungs: As we fall asleep, our breathing rate changes. It becomes slow and regular, and we begin to draw deep breaths. This helps in drawing higher levels of oxygen into the body and expelling carbon dioxide.
  • Heart: Because of deep breathing during sleep, our heart rate slows down. This gives our heart an opportunity to relax, which also lowers our blood pressure.
  • Brain: As with other organs, toxins accumulate in the brain as well. Not clearing the toxins could give rise to neurological diseases and conditions like Alzheimer’s. During sleep, our brain flushes out toxins and regains its health. So, a good night’s sleep would certainly improve your child’s academic performance.

Why good sleep during exams is a must

Your child’s exam scores depend not only on the time she spends studying, but also on her ability to learn and remember information.

Research has shown that healthy sleep plays a very important role in enhancing creativity, and facilitating learning and memory — all of which affect a child’s exam results.

Good night sleep promotes:

  • Perceptual skills: While we are active and looking around, our eyes transmit a lot of information to the brain. In their study, Mednick et al found that a 60 to 90-minute nap improved the ability to organise and interpret information.
  • Memory consolidation: Whenever we acquire new information, it is necessary to integrate it with the knowledge we already have and transform it into long-term memory. So, while your child sleeps after long hours of study, her brain creates a summary of the new information and adds it to her knowledge base.
  • Memory: The ability to remember is important. For, only then can a student retrieve information he has acquired and answer the questions asked in exams. Sleep is essential for the development of good declarative memory (the ability to remember events and facts).
  • Creativity: REM (rapid eye movement) is that stage of sleep when dreams occur. REM sleep promotes the development of associated memory (the ability to remember and recall relationships between unrelated things) and the integration of unassociated information. This helps students in coming up with creative solutions to problems. Research has also shown that creativity is at its peak after REM sleep.
  • Better performance: Fakhari et al investigated the relationship between sleep and exam scores. They found that students who slept for 6–10 hours during the 24 hours preceding an exam scored higher marks than those sleeping less than 6 hours.

Here's what the toppers from 2019 board examinations had to say about sleeping well during examinations —

During the exams, I had to cut down on long hours of sleep. Early morning suited me, so I used to get up every day at 6:00 a.m. and start studying by 7:00 a.m. So, select your sleep timings as per your convenience. 
— Hansika Shukla, CBSE Class 12 topper, 2019

You should not deprive yourself of sleep the night before the exam. Having a good night’s sleep would make you feel fresh in the exam hall and you can think with more clarity. 
— Karishma Arora, CBSE Class 12 topper, 2019

I am a morning person, so my day starts early. During my exam preparation, I used to get up around 5:00 a.m. I have never studied beyond 9:00 p.m., even before an exam. 
— Raksha Gopal, CBSE Class 12 topper, 2017

Research on importance of sleep during exams

A study was published in the Society for Research in Child Development titled, ‘Sacrificing sleep to study can lead to academic problems’ (2012). It led to the findings that, ‘Regardless of how much a high school student generally studies each day, if that student sacrifices sleep in order to study more than usual, he or she is more likely to have academic problems the following day.’

Michael Scullin of Baylor University, noticing sleep deprivation in his students, issued a challenge asking them to sleep for 8 hours every night, offering credit points in return. The results of his case study published in the journal ‘Teaching of Psychology’ (2018) reveal, “On the final exam, students who slept ≥8.0 hr performed better than students who opted out or slept ≤7.9 hr, even after controlling for prefinal grades. The 8-hr sleep challenge provides proof of principle that many students can maintain optimal sleep while studying, without sacrificing test performance.”

According to Arundhati Swamy, Head of the Parent Engagement Program at ParentCircle,

 Uninterrupted sleep of six to eight hours is vital for overall well-being, and more so during the exams when a child’s mind is stretched to its limits – to focus, revise, recall and reproduce or apply large volumes of information. The physical strain of long hours of study and an overactive mind causes mental fatigue. A tired mind lacks focus and takes longer to learn. Frustration sets in, leading to doubts, and fears and worries about performance. Emotional stress sets in. A good night’s sleep helps to restore physical tiredness, repairs emotional stress and prepares the mind to pay attention and concentrate on the tasks for the next day. Sleep tight, feel right!

How many hours should we sleep?

Now that you understand that sleep does have a positive effect on a child’s academic performance and on exam scores, you would also want to know for how many hours a student should sleep.

The ideal sleep duration for every 24 hours for children varies according to age. Sleep duration by age recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine is 9 to 12 hours for children between 6 and 12 years, and 8 to 10 hours for children aged between 13 and 18 years. On average, school-age children need 9.5 hours of sleep every 24 hours.

I believe that sleep is important for a child’s academic success. Getting the required amount of sleep contributes a lot to how a child performs at school. For each age group, the required amount of sleep is as follows – adolescents: 8-10 hours, young students: 9-11 hours and adults: 7-9 hours. — Denise Pope, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education

Tips for a good night’s sleep for your child

There is no cause for concern if your child is following the sleep schedule recommended above. However, if that is not the case, then here are a few simple things you should do to ensure a good night’s sleep for your child:

  1. Develop a bedtime routine: This includes doing the same activities every night before going to bed, such as putting on the night dress, brushing the teeth, going to the toilet, reading a book and so on.
  2. Limit exposure to screen devices: The blue light emitted by screen devices impairs our ability to sleep. So, make your child understand this fact and limit her use of screen devices.
  3. Stick to the same sleep schedule: Encourage your child to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day.
  4. Avoid caffeine-containing products: Eatables like ice cream, chocolate, chocolate cake and drinks like soda and iced tea contain caffeine. Avoid giving caffeine to your child at least 3 hours before bedtime.

Taking these steps will surely help your child sleep better, but if they do not resolve the problem, then consult a physician.

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About the author:

Written by Arun Sharma on 5 February 2020.

The author was associated with the healthcare industry before becoming a full-time writer and editor. A doting father to two preteens, he believes in experiential learning for his children. Also, he loves mountain trekking and nature trips.

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