“to sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub…”William Shakespeare, Hamlet Act-III, Scene-I
Every day, in one way or another, I have a conversation with someone (or myself), on the subject of sleep. It is curious that something that should be as natural as a sneeze or a blink, has become a vast and pressing topic of discussion.
The conversations I have are about the importance of predictable sleep patterns or the impact that a lack of sleep has on toddlers, teenagers and even adults.
Around the world, there are extensive cutting-edge research projects that focus on the importance of sleep – like the impact of sleep on the growing neuro-pathways in the under 5s, the effects of less or interrupted sleep on the capacity to learn in school and university students, or how sleep deprivation impacts national economies, to name a few.
Sleep (or the lack thereof) has become an industry. Overnight sleep clinics monitor sleep patterns, pharmacy shelves are stocked with a range of “sleep aid” vitamins, advertisements showcase uniquely engineered pillows and mattresses. We even install sleep-time Apps on our phones, and remind ourselves to practice mindful deep-breathing exercises. We watch our caffeine intake and consider our diets. We listen to podcasts and download TED talks, read self-help books and browse the internet for strategies, solutions and advice on how we can help ourselves and our children to improve the quality of our sleep.
We do this because we know now that sleep is the single most effective ‘activity’ we can do to rest our brains and ensure physical health each day. In the ‘good old days’, sleeping eight to 10 hours a night was as common as eating three meals a day. As the sun went down, we prepared for our bedtime; and as the sun rose, we awoke, refreshed and ready to begin a new day.
Now, we use our nights to attend to our work deadlines (clearly, not enough hours in a day) and we rise well before dawn to fit in our exercise routines or to catch up on the latest global economic trends before we begin our days. Our days and nights are fused and merged. We borrow hours from one and exchange for the other – possibly getting more things ticked off our to-do lists but, sadly, lessening our chances of properly sleeping. And, in doing so, we lessen our chances to dream.
Dream the impossible dream
Dr Mathew Walker, author of Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, writes:
“Atop of sleep, dreaming provides essential emotional first aid and a unique form of informational alchemy. If we wish to be as healthy, happy, and creative as possible, these are facts well worth waking up to.”
In our Early Learning Centres, our ‘quiet and restful times’ are an essential part of our daily program. Our playrooms transform into large cosy bedrooms, as children are given the daily opportunities to rest their bodies and minds. We do not deviate from this important time of day, as we promote a healthy, balanced life, allowing our children to grow and thrive. We know that this quiet time gives children the chance to successfully navigate their afternoons and evenings with ease, and means that they are able to sustain and enjoy a full day. As the research demonstrates, it is then that children are able to sleep through the night, restore their energy, consolidate their day’s experiences and wake up ready for a brand new day.
Neuroscientist Dr Frances Jensen explains in her book The Teenage Brain:
“Bedtime isn’t simply a way for the body to relax and recoup after a hard day working, studying or playing. It’s the glue that allows us not only to recollect our experiences but also to remember everything we’ve learned that day…. Not only does sleep strengthen learning and memories – it also has the ability to prioritise memories by breaking them up and organising them according to their emotional importance. Essentially, the more you learn, the more you need to sleep, which is why a good sleep is critical in achieving success at school.”
The sad truth is that we are teetering on the edge of a living nightmare – Australia is regarded as a sleep-deprived nation. Research by the Australian Sleep Health Foundation has found between 33 and 45 per cent of Aussies have poor sleep patterns that lead to fatigue and irritability that’s putting them at risk of low productivity, damage to their mental health and unsafe behaviours. We interfere in our children’s natural sleep patterns so that we can meet our own needs; and put undue pressure on ourselves by not valuing sleep as one of our most essential bodily functions. In fact, what studies show is that we short-change ourselves, believing we don’t need as much sleep anymore and, in doing so, we put ourselves and others at risk.
Sleeping for success
If we hope to set our children up for success, and leave our world a better place for future generations, then perhaps one easy and useful way to ensure this is to turn off our days, dim the lights, and snuggle down to rest. We do this in the hope that we will have a long and much needed night’s sleep, interrupted only by deep dreams that restore our emotions, stockpile our memories and reset our brains for the new day ahead.
This is not new to the human condition – we know Shakespeare knew this, so did Heraclitus Ephesus, (c.535 – c.475 BCE) pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, when he wrote in his book Fragments:
“Even a soul submerged in sleep is hard at work and helps make something of the world.”
Together, let us wake up to the importance of dreams and allow our children to sleep.
About the author
Cathy Milwidsky is the Director of Early Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW