Yawning, bleary eyed and prone to irrational meltdowns – these are just some of the signs a child hasn’t had enough sleep. But consistently missing out on shuteye can wreak havoc with youngsters’ behaviour and their ability to concentrate at school.
According to Harvard Medical School paediatrician Elsie Taveras, who led a recent study into the effects of sleep deprivation on young children:
“Children who get an insufficient amount of sleep in their pre-school and early school-age years have a higher risk of poor neurobehavioral function at around age seven.”
Worldwide Sleep Deficit
Worryingly, children everywhere are sleeping less (five-year-olds need around 11 hours a night). A study at Boston College in America revealed that an alarming 64% of UK 9-10-year-olds are sleep-deprived.
So what’s behind this epidemic of sleeplessness, and what can we do about it?
Inevitably, the explosion of technology plays a massive role. Not only do children stay up later, glued to TV and iPads’, but the blue light these devices emit disrupts their natural sleep patterns. This is because it interrupts the body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that makes us feel drowsy – just when little brains should be slowing down for the evening, they are jolted awake. The upshot? Over time their body clocks adjust to thinking that bedtime is later than it should be, and a vicious circle of sleeplessness begins.
The positive news is that by using light correctly – by night at home, and by day at school – we can harness its power for good and mitigate these problems. At home, parents need to take away devices two hours before bedtime, so the body can reset itself for sleep. In schools, we need to help children feel alert by creating the ideal lighting scenarios. This two-pronged approach will stimulate children’s circadian rhythm, so they maintain a healthy pattern of being productive by day and sleepy by night.
Any adult will doubtless recall struggling to stay awake during early morning lessons at school. As Mariana Figueiro, a Director at the Lighting Research Center, says:
“Today’s rigid school schedules requiring teenagers to be in class early in the morning causes them to miss the essential morning light needed to stimulate the circadian system, which regulates body temperature, alertness, appetite, hormones and sleep patterns.”
The Benefits of LED Lighting
But now studies show that installing modern, full spectrum LED lighting in schools can help children overcome this early morning tiredness. This is because it more closely mimics natural daylight, which in turn suppresses melatonin and helps the brain know it’s time to be wide awake.
Research also suggests that children who study under Full Spectrum light (light that covers the whole colour spectrum) feel more invigorated and positive. The bottom line? For the 30 plus hours a week they spend in the classroom, children’s bodies – and brains – will perform better.
Another plus is that, unlike traditional fluorescent strips, neither compact fluorescent light bulbs nor LED lights flicker or buzz – something that can be distracting and tiring, because it strains the eyes. They also don’t have the glare that can cause concentration difficulties and headaches.
LED lighting also improves clarity of vision. And if students can see well, they’ll read faster and work more effectively. Researchers in South Korea discovered that students who took a maths test under LED lights set to mimic daylight performed better than pupils using standard fluorescent lighting.
Another bonus of adjustable LED lighting is that it can be tweaked to suit the activity. Children will benefit from broad spectrum lighting when doing tests, whilst a warmer light would suit break time or lunch. In an ICT room, adjustable LEDs can eliminate glare on computer screens.
So, it seems the message is clear. Just as poor lighting adversely affects the way our bodies function, great lighting can enhance it. We should bear this in mind when it comes to the school environment – children are our future, after all.
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Sophie Barton is our Features Editor. She a journalist and editor with 17 years’ experience in the national media, specialising in wellbeing and lifestyle.