Two Hope psychology professors are hoping their recent research will help parents understand the importance and ways that children should be nestled all snug in their beds. Good sleep is as important as good nutrition in raising happy, healthy kids, but unfortunately, most children are not getting enough shut-eye to allow visions of sugar plums to dance in their heads.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, 77% of preschoolers, who should get 11-12 hours of sleep daily, experience sleep-related disruptive behaviors at least a few nights a week.
Dr. Sonja Trent-Brown and Dr. Andrew Gall, with assistance from 13 Hope students and participation from 73 Holland-area preschoolers and their parents, used novel methodology in a study this past fall to better understand how children’s good (or bad) sleep hygiene affects not only their health and welfare but learning and playing, too.
Parental sleep journals and wearable exercise technology were their means to gather the study’s sleep data. As parents recorded their preschoolers sleep routines, light/sound exposures at night, and daily socioemotional interactions, a Fitbit ® — worn around the preschoolers’ ankles for 12 weeks — digitally recorded activity patterns during the day and night. Fitbits ® can capture detailed quantitative measurements besides steps and calories burned. They also record sleep onset and offset (including nap times), number of nighttime awakenings, and the amount of time spent awake during the night.
The devices were the perfect fit to help the professors, and eventually parents, understand how good sleep hygiene, and possible necessary interventions, can help preschoolers get the good sleep they need. Good sleep hygiene is defined as consistent bedtimes and morning rising times, and avoiding large meals, caffeine, and light sources (e.g., night lights, smart phones, iPads, computers) before bedtime.
“Honestly, it was just fun working with preschoolers. Since I’m a pretty tall guy, sometimes they got a little bit shy around me, but after one or two (memory) games, they opened up and would tell me all about going sledding with friends or having a friend over to play games.”
“Very few studies have examined sleep patterns in preschoolers in their home environments,” says Gall who specializes in the neuroscience of sleep.
“This project is very close to our hearts,” adds Trent-Brown who specializes in early childhood development. “We’ve both experienced the joys and challenges of parenting preschoolers … We want for other parents to have the opportunity to learn more about their children and themselves.”
Funded by a $32,500 grant from the Caplan Foundation for Early Childhood, the study also involved Hope students who visited two Holland preschools to test the participants on memory performance tasks. Storytelling and missing object recall were two such tasks administered by Bradley Dixon who joined the project early, conducting preparatory work last summer.
“It was an awesome experience as a sophomore to have an opportunity to work in the field,” said Dixon, who is from Kentwood, Michigan. “I’m hoping to eventually work with real patients some day, so this was really a great experience to be able to spend time with people. It helped me understand the difference between learning about psychology in a textbook and applying it in real life.
“Plus, honestly, it was just fun working with preschoolers. Since I’m a pretty tall guy, sometimes they got a little bit shy around me, but after one or two (memory) games, they opened up and would tell me all about going sledding with friends or having a friend over to play games. So that was fun too.”
The professors have plans to write children’s books too about getting good sleep. In doing so, their findings will reach those who are the ones meant to hear the lessons their research uncovered: parents and preschoolers themselves.
Trent-Brown and Gall, as well as their students, will look over the data in the spring semester and reach their conclusions. While scholarly publication of their findings is expected, the professors plan to write children’s books about getting good sleep in order to reach parents and preschoolers themselves.
“We want them to know that sleep matters,” says Trent-Brown. “The Centers for Disease Control calls sleep deprivation in the U.S. a ‘public health epidemic’ because Americans — from all walks of life and across all developmental lifespan periods — aren’t getting the sleep we require and we underestimate its importance and undermine its impact. To use a colloquial phrase, ‘Don’t sleep’ on sleep!”