Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Can Sleep Loss Affect Children's Ability to Process Speech?

Guest blog from Sarah Cummings

The impact of sleep deprivation in the cognitive performance of adults is a well-researched field. And rightly so. Unfortunately, conducting the same research on children is often a little more complicated – with difficulties arising due to ethical worries around depriving our little ones of sleep. Fair enough. We can’t keep the little beggars up all night, can we?!

Still, sleep loss in children is a vitally important field. Especially considering the staggering amount of cognitive development that takes place at a young age.

Thankfully, more research is being done – with parental consent, I should hasten to add – and we’re slowly beginning to understand the impact of poor-quality or insufficient sleep on children, especially in regards to speech development.

Below are a few ways in which sleep loss seems to impact a child’s ability to process speech.

Speech Perception

A number of studies have been conducted into how sleep-deprived children are able to perceive speech.

One study looked at how sleep-deprived children performed against their well-rested compatriots in a test of speech perception. The experiment compared how well participating six-year-olds were able to identify the beginning sounds of syllables; a test that is predictive of language development in later life.  

The sleep-restricted children were shown to respond significantly slower and brain scans showed considerable differences in brain activity across five separate areas.

What was most revealing about this particular study was that the difference in sleep duration between the sleep-deprived group and the control group was just one hour less a night for a week. Yep, one hour was all it took.

While this is, of course, just one study, the implications are nonetheless important. If a noticeable impact can be made after just one week of one hour less sleep a night, what about children who are chronic poor sleepers? Just imagine the effect on their ability to concentrate in class.

Processing Power

A further study compared a group of 7–11-year-old children, who had been diagnosed with sleep apnea, against a control group.

This experiment involved setting the two groups a cognitive task that involved the identification of words.

While on the face of it both groups’ performance was comparable, when the fMRI results were compared the brain activity of the children with sleep apnea was shown to be greater in the areas of cognitive control and attentional allocation. In plain English, their brains were being put under greater stress – effectively working harder – to achieve the same results as their well-rested friends.

Napping Effects

The systems that connect learning and sleep are becoming increasingly well known.

A process known as ‘consolidation’ takes place when we are asleep – this is where the brain reactivates and replays information from our waking hours, strengthening the neural connections triggered during the information acquisition/learning process.

Although this takes place at night, it can have the same effect during an afternoon nap, or as it is aptly called, a ‘power nap’. This is also true for an adult studying Japanese…but it’s more essential for a child learning new verbs.

In fact, when it comes to children, the effect of napping is even more pronounced. One study conducted around word learning and napping showed that children who were encouraged to sleep shortly after hearing new words retained their newly acquired knowledge significantly better than other children who remained awake.

Both sets of kids were tested a couple of hours afterwards, then a day and then a week after, and the power of the nap was shown to remain true on all three occasions.

Rebecca Gomez, Associate Professor at University of Arizona, agrees with the power of both a good night’s sleep and regular napping:

“Preschool-age children should be getting 10 to 12 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, whether it’s all at night or a combination of nighttime sleep and napping.”

So, maybe it is time to bring back the afternoon nap – for both you and your little one.

Final Thoughts

As we’ve seen even a difference of just one hour can negatively impact a child’s ability to perceive and process words. Conversely, an hour’s afternoon nap can impact positively on their ability to retain new words. So there is little doubt that a link between sleep and a child’s speech development exists.

Fortunately, there are a number of sleep-related activities that encourage speech development, such as reading your children bedtime stories, but still the most helpful thing for speech development is getting a good night’s sleep. Followed, of course, by a few well-placed daytime naps.

Unfortunately, encouraging a child to do anything they don’t want to do is, as we all know, hard – but little things like setting a consistent bedtime routine and creating a relaxing bedroom environment can make a big difference.

For more advice on how to encourage sleep in children and in adults, check out the expert advice from the guys at the sleep advisor blog. When it comes to nodding off, they really know what they’re talking about.

In the meantime, make sure your kids get enough sleep – night and day – and you can rest assured that their development will respond accordingly.

Sarah Cummings



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