Children can be their own sleep experts

When children sleep better, they also learn better. That is why Kerstin Hödlmoser, former Jacobs Young Scholar, co-wrote a book “Ilvy schläft gut. Schlafen lernen mit System” (“Ilvy sleeps well: Systematically learning to sleep”) intended for elementary school children who have difficulty falling or staying asleep. The Jacobs Foundation spoke with Kerstin Hödlmoser about her book and the topic of sleep.

Why is sleep so important for a child’s development?
Our research has repeatedly shown that when children sleep better, they also learn better. The things that are learned during the day need to be reinforced during sleep. Sleep is essential for consolidating memories – for transferring what is learned from short-term to long-term memory. Sound sleep is also important for mental and physical recovery, as well as for growth and the immune system.

Your book takes an unusual approach: You want to help children themselves become experts. Why not write a traditional guide for parents?
Our book is part of the SOWAS! series, which provides scientifically based, age-appropriate information to children so that they can acquire their own expertise. The first part of the book tells the story of an elementary school-aged girl named Ilvy. She sometimes has difficulty falling or staying asleep, even with her favorite stuffed animal – perhaps because she is preoccupied with a test or an exciting trip that’s coming up, or because of bad dreams. These situations are familiar to many of our young readers who have trouble sleeping. The book also offers readily understandable illustrations of how families deal with such issues – for example by establishing a regular bedtime ritual (such as listening to a bedtime story), giving the child a back rub, or setting consistent rules.

The book also includes an activity section. Does that section help children fall asleep?
The second part of the book consists of a coloring book and a questionnaire. The activities are designed to help young readers become more conscious of their own sleep behavior – and then, with the help of creative and practical solutions, they can improve it. We pose questions such as: Are you an early bird or a night owl? What might help you fall asleep? What do you and Ilvy have in common? What do you typically do during the last hour before you fall asleep? The third part of the book is devoted to a sleep diary, which children are encouraged to fill out for a period of three weeks. This is intended to help them find out how much sleep they need to feel healthy and well rested.

The impact of technologies, and particularly smartphones, on children is the subject of heated discussion. How do these technologies affect sleep?
Our latest project, “Tackling the Paradox of Sleep and Technology Through Near Peer Relationships,” addresses the same topics as our children’s book. The goal of the project is for children to understand how using a smartphone or tablet before going to bed affects their sleep, and for them to learn how to make better, independent use of their smartphones. A number of studies have shown that smartphones deprive children of sleep, not only because they tend to encourage emotional responses, but also because they emit short-wavelength blue light. Exposure to artificial light of this kind suppresses the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. In a current study, we are also using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain waves in an effort to find out how the use of cell phones within two hours of bedtime affects children’s sleep and memory, and in particular emotion regulation.

When it comes to bedtime rituals, how strict are you with yourself?

I try to be consistent and go to bed at a regular hour. It’s often not so easy, because my partner is a night owl. And unfortunately, on most days (at least during the week) I don’t put my laptop and smartphone away until shortly before going to bed. But I still sleep very well – so apparently my stress level is not high enough that I need to be really strict with myself.