A study by the Stanford University School of Medicine, in the United States, reveals that children at risk gain more than one hour of sleep per night after participating in a mindfulness program in their elementary schools, according to their authors in the ‘Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine’. This is the first research to use polysomnography techniques, which measure brain activity, to assess how mindfulness training at school changes children’s sleep. The curriculum taught children to relax and manage stress by focusing their attention on the present, but it did not teach them to get more sleep. “Children who received the curriculum slept, on average, 74 minutes more per night than before the intervention,” says study lead author Ruth O’Hara, PhD, sleep expert and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. at Stanford-. That is a huge change.
Rapid eye movement sleep, which includes sleep and helps consolidate memories, was also lengthened in children who learned the techniques. “They gained almost half an hour of REM sleep,” O’Hara points out. That is really amazing. There is theoretical, animal and human evidence to suggest that it is a very important sleep phase for neural development and for the development of cognitive and emotional function. ‘ The children in the study lived in two low-income, primarily Hispanic communities in the San Francisco Bay area. One community received the intervention; the other served as a control. Both had high rates of crime and violence, and families faced stressors such as food insecurity and overcrowding and unstable housing.
These conditions are a recipe for poor sleep, says the study’s lead researcher, Víctor Carrión, a professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry who directs Stanford’s Early Life Stress and Resilience Program, who launched the study to help children young people manage the effects of living in a stressful environment. However, getting at-risk children to sleep better is not just a matter of telling them to sleep more or to stick to a regular schedule. “To fall asleep you have to relax, but it is difficult for them to let go of their experiences,” says Carrión. They do not feel safe and may have nightmares and fears at night.
The curriculum consisted of training to bring the mindfulness, slow deep breathing exercises and yoga-based movements. The children’s yoga instructors and teachers taught the curriculum twice a week for two years in all primary and secondary schools in the community that received the intervention. The instructors taught the children what stress was and encouraged them to use the techniques to help them rest and relax, but did not instruct them on techniques to improve sleep, such as maintaining a consistent bedtime schedule.
The instructors used the Pure Power curriculum, developed by a non-profit organization called PureEdge; it is available to schools for free in both Spanish and English. Of the more than 1,000 third and fifth graders who participated in the study, the researchers recruited 58 children who received the curriculum and 57 children from the control group to take three sleep assessments at home, conducted before starting the study. curriculum, after one year and after two years. These evaluations measured brain activity during sleep, through a cap with electrodes placed on the child’s head, as well as respiratory and heart rates and blood oxygen levels.
At the start of the study, the researchers found that children in the control group slept 54 minutes longer, on average, and had 15 minutes more REM sleep per night than children in the group who subsequently received the training: Children in the control group slept about 7.5 hours per night, and those in the curriculum group about 6.6 hours per night. The researchers don’t know why children in the two communities, despite similarities in income level and other demographics, had different average sleep times.
But the two groups’ sleep patterns evolved differently. Over the two years of the study, among children in the control group, total sleep decreased by 63 minutes per night, while REM sleep minutes remained stable, consistent with the sleep reductions that they are usually seen in late childhood and early adolescence. Instead, children who participated in the curriculum gained 74 minutes of total sleep and 24 minutes of REM sleep.
“It makes intuitive sense that children who did not participate in the curriculum decreased their sleep, based on what we know about being a child of this age,” explains study lead author Christina Chick, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow. in psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “Older children may stay awake to do homework or to talk or text with their friends,” she continues. I interpret our results to mean that the curriculum was protective, in the sense that it taught skills that helped protect against such sleep losses. Hormonal changes and brain development also contribute to changes in sleep at this age».
Still, the average amount of sleep that study participants received in both groups was low, the doctor says, noting that at least nine hours of sleep per night is recommended for healthy children. The researchers hypothesized that children might experience improved sleep through stress reduction. However, the children who slept more during the study also reported increased stress, perhaps because the curriculum helped them understand what stress was. However, they slept better.
They now plan to disseminate the results more widely, for example by helping teachers deliver a similar curriculum. They also plan to conduct more studies to understand how different elements of the curriculum, such as exercises that promote slow, deep breathing, can change the way the body works to allow for better sleep. “We believe that the work of breathing changes the physiological environment, perhaps increasing the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, and that this translates into improved sleep,” says Chick.