- One large study found that most children woke up later and slept longer compared to a year ago.
- The data have implications for children's sleep needs and school start times.
- To gauge how much sleep a child needs, parents should observe their sleep patterns during school vacations.
The global pandemic has produced an unusual and challenging school year. Beginning in Spring 2020 and continuing through the end of school this spring, the vast majority of school-age children have not attended school for some period and have instead done their schoolwork remotely from home.
Much research has been done to measure the effects of school closures on the lives of children and adolescents, including school achievement, psychological problems, physical activity, nutrition, and other outcomes. Quite a few studies have sought to learn how staying at home has affected sleep duration, quality, and timing.
While I have not done a comprehensive review and more studies will be published this year and in succeeding years, some have caught my attention. A study recently published in the journal Sleep Medicine is one. Its findings reveal some interesting discoveries about children’s sleep needs. Further, it has implications for the nationwide debate about when the school day should begin to afford children the best opportunities for optimal educational achievement and psychological health.
School closures and children's sleep
The study was conducted in Singapore, where students, like those in other Asian countries, have generally been found to sleep fewer hours than students in other parts of the world. Students from Singapore also typically score at or near the top on standardized tests of academic achievement worldwide.
The authors surveyed 593 families and children regarding sleep duration and timing both before and after schools shifted to remote learning. Also studied were academic activities, physical exercise, and screen time. Children were ages 3 to 16 and attending preschool, primary, or secondary schools, both public and private.
Here is a summary of some of the findings for sleep duration after school closures compared to pre-closure:
- Preschool students went to bed 24 minutes later, and woke up 40 minutes later, sleeping 16 minutes longer.
- Primary school students went to bed 24 minutes later, and woke up 54 minutes later, sleeping 30 minutes longer.
- Secondary school students went to bed 24 minutes later, and woke up 42 minutes later, sleeping 18 minutes longer.
Given that so many studies over the years have shown that children are not getting sufficient sleep, finding that children of all ages got more sleep is one benefit among all the challenges for students associated with the pandemic. Part of the sleep advantage was no doubt due to time saved not commuting to and from school.
Determining how much sleep your child needs
I have often been asked by parents, “How can I know how much sleep my child needs?” I have usually said that school vacations, when there is no pressure to rise early to get to school, are good times to see how long a child sleeps under those circumstances. Taking an average over several days is as good an estimate as any of how much sleep is needed. In the case of the children in Singapore, they are sleeping more, suggesting that they previously were most likely not getting as much sleep as needed.
Sleep and school start times
If you have read any of my posts about school start times, you know that I support later starts. But unlike many sleep professionals who believe that middle- and high-school students should start later and that younger students suffer no disadvantage from starting earlier, I support later starts for both younger and older students.
It is instructive to see that in Singapore, it was the primary school students who woke most later and slept for a longer duration compared with pre-closure, suggesting that their sleep pre-closure was relatively less sufficient than that of preschool or secondary students. Unfortunately, the study did not include data about pre-closure start times, and no data was provided for when online school started after the school closures.
By the end of this year, a sufficient number of studies worldwide taking advantage of this unwelcome natural experiment will be available, and further conclusions will be forthcoming regarding what has been learned.
Lim, M. T. C., Ramamurthy, M. B., Aishworiya, R., Rajgor, D. D., Tran, A. P., Hiriyur, P., ... & Goh, D. Y. T. (2021). School closure during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic–Impact on children's sleep. Sleep Medicine, 78, 108-114.