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Home > News > 2016 > June > Time to wake up: sleep and its effect on learning

Time to wake up: sleep and its effect on learning

Topics : Early Childhood

child_sleeping.jpgSleep is a crucial part of health and wellbeing, and it is especially important for growth during childhood.

Karen Thorpe and Cassandra Pattinson of the Sleep in Early Childhood Research Group (SECRG) from the Centre for Children’s Health Research at the Queensland University of Technology discuss the effects of children unnecessarily day napping in early childhood centres, which can lead to poor sleeping patterns at night.

Sleep is important. Our experience as adults tells us that when we lack sleep we are less alert, slower to learn and less able to cope with everyday problems and annoyances. For young children, sleep is vital. Sleep plays a crucial role in brain development and is associated with growth, memory, and emotional regulation in both the short and long term.

A key issue for teachers working with young children in the management of sleep needs is to ensure they optimise children’s opportunity for learning and their emotional wellbeing to promote positive learning experiences.

In the early education sector, daytime sleep is a key consideration that is recognised in legislation. The National Quality Framework (NQF) requires that education services “make appropriate provision for each child’s sleep, rest and relaxation needs” (Quality Area 2) within a context where learning opportunities are optimised (Quality Area 1).

Naps for learning

A complexity for early education teachers in meeting these needs is that across early childhood, between zero to five years, sleep patterns are in transition. Over time, children’s need for daytime sleep diminishes and they eventually become night only sleepers. During this time, research has shown that there is a relationship between daytime sleep and learning.

In preschool children, evidence indicates that for those who still need regular naps, day sleeping supports learning. After being given a daytime sleep period, children who were regular nappers remembered their learning from the morning learning session better than if they were required to stay awake.

However, providing children who no longer needed a nap with a daytime sleep period did not have any benefit for their learning. This suggests a changing relationship between sleep and learning. In fact, for children who have reached the developmental milestone of giving up daytime sleep, having a sleep during the day can have an adverse effect, by reducing the length of night sleep.

The management of sleep to optimise learning is complex for early childhood teachers. The normal age when napping ceases is anywhere between one and five. This means that in any early childhood classroom there will be children who need sleep to support their emotional regulation and learning, whilst for others, scheduling of a sleep time may not be optimal. Scheduling of standard sleep periods is unlikely to meet individual needs, therefore alternatives for sleepers and non sleepers are essential.

Rest and relaxation

In order to optimise learning, this not only requires providing opportunities for children to sleep but also a restful and relaxing activity away from cots or beds for non sleepers. Examples of successful strategies we have viewed in our research include using different rooms for sleep and rest or trialing meditation instead for non-sleeping children. Ultimately, guiding children to monitor their need for sleep and teaching them to establish positive sleep and rest habits will sustain learning beyond the preschool years.

To support the development of healthy lifetime sleep practices, teachers need to work with children and families to provide appropriate opportunities to meet each child’s need for sleep, rest and relaxation.

To access a fact sheet on children’s sleep with the SERCG group’s research, visit www.deta.qld.gov.au/earlychildhood/pdfs/sleep-factsheet-sleep-practices.pdf


Staton S, Irvine S, Pattinson C, Smith S and Thorpe K 2015 The sleeping elephant in the room: Practices and policies regarding sleep/rest time in ECEC. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, Vol 40 issue 4 December 2015.

This article was extracted from the June 2016 edition of Bedrock.

Authorised by Terry Burke, Independent Education Union of Australia – Queensland & Northern Territory Branch, Brisbane.