Sleep and cognitive development: How adequate sleep enhances learning in children

Created Dec 06, 2023
Sleep and cognitive development: How adequate sleep enhances learning in children | Huckleberry

Does sleep really make you smarter? As a teacher with over 20 years of experience and a mom, I have seen firsthand the impact of sleep on children’s learning, behavior, and overall health and well-being. In essence, sleep does make you smarter and not only that but happier!

Understanding the link between quality sleep and cognitive development is important for all of us to know. We will delve into the science behind this article without getting too bogged down in “medical jargon,” we promise! 

Parents and caregivers like you play a vital role in ensuring that your children have a solid sleep foundation, as this will contribute to better sleep quality and, consequently, enhanced learning and cognitive development [1].


Understanding the sleep-learning link

The importance of age-appropriate sleep duration

Impact on memory consolidation

Brain development during sleep for kids

Effects of sleep quality on cognitive functions


Sleep and cognitive development FAQ

For years, people within all aspects of the medical field have been fascinated by the relationship between sleep and brain development. There is still a lot more to uncover, however, there are some key findings that can ensure your child has the best possible start to life.

What we do know is that understanding the complex link between sleep and learning is essential for optimizing the cognitive performance of your child’s memory retention, and overall well-being [2]. Research has shown that sleep plays a crucial role in brain development, cognitive function, and academic achievement in children [3].

Have you wondered if your child is getting enough sleep? 

This table below is a general “overview” and is an approximation showing the amount of sleep we would typically expect within a specific age range. 

CategoryAge (Months/Years)Total Sleep per 24 hrs
Newborn0 - 1 month15.5 - 17 hours
Newborn2 - 3 months15 - 17 hours
Infant4 - 5 months14.5 - 16 hours
Infant6 months14 - 14.5 hours
Infant7 - 8 months14 - 14.5 hours
Infant9 - 11 months13 - 14 hours
Toddler12 - 17 months13 - 13.5 hours
Toddler18 - 35 months12 - 13 hours
Preschooler3 - 5 years10.5 - 11.5 hours

Just a heads up: Sleep needs can vary, and what's considered normal covers a wide range. If your little one's sleep doesn't match those suggested hours, but they seem well rested, don't sweat it! These numbers are a general guideline. It's equally important to see how your kiddo is feeling and if they're getting the rest they need based on their mood and energy levels. For more information regarding specific age-related sleep schedules, please click here

Sleep plays a crucial role in memory consolidation. Memory consolidation is when short-term memories (or learnings) are transformed and stabilized into long-term memories. This process is essential for retaining learned information so we can access it at a later date [4].

Your child’s brain is so busy when they are asleep. When your child learns something new, their brain stores it for a short amount of time. Therefore it can be easily forgotten if that learned experience isn’t transferred into the long-term storage within their brain. 

During the deep sleep phase (or slow-wave-sleep SWS), your child’s brain will process and consolidate those short-term memories. Neural connections become more stable so there is less chance of your child forgetting the information. 

Next comes the dream phase of sleep, which is called Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. During this part of the sleep cycle, your child’s brain will reorganize the stored information and make connections with prior knowledge. This leads to a deeper understanding of the world around them. 

The different stages of sleep are all equally important when it comes to learning new things and retaining that information for the future. If your child is waking frequently during the night those phases of sleep become disrupted [5]. 

So, now we understand the link between sleep, memory, and learning, but what are the other benefits of sleep that will optimize your child’s cognitive functions [6]?

The benefits of quality sleep are:

Sustained attention and concentrationBeing able to focus or engage in activities for longer periods. The brain also has the ability to filter out distractions.
Ability to problem-solve and be more creativeTo engage in play, children need to be creative. To learn, they need to problem-solve.
Able to make better decisions which reduce risky behaviorSleep-deprived children can often be impulsive. Some do not have the energy to think through decisions with clarity.
Enhancement in fine and gross motor skillsSleepy children may not have sustained energy to feed themselves, hold objects, walk, crawl, pull up, roll, etc. Tired children can be more accident-prone.
Cognitive speed increases Feeling tired makes it more effortful to learn new things.
Better at regulating moodHaving enough sleep can result in fewer tantrums, tears, and meltdowns.
Bone and muscle development is greatly improvedLack of sleep affects growth hormone production.

Here are some simple tips that can increase your child’s quality of sleep:

Light exposure can be the biggest influence when it comes to regulating their circadian rhythm [7] and ensuring the sleep hormone melatonin is released. This is your child’s biological clock which cues them when to sleep, wake, eat, poop, etc. Dim the lights close to bedtime and keep the lights on during the day when you want your little one to stay awake.

“Knowledge is power” as they say. Being aware of age-appropriate wake windows and recommended sleep totals, then seeing how they compare to your child’s own patterns, can help to ensure that their internal sleep drive is optimized. Both under and overtired children will struggle to either fall asleep or stay asleep because the sleep pressure is off.  

Using our Huckleberry App to track sleep helps to take the guesswork out of it. 

Eating and sleeping go hand in hand. Hunger can result in short naps and early waking. On the other hand, a tired child may not be interested in eating. 

To rule out hunger-related sleep issues, ensure your child is getting enough calories during the day. Offering a snack or later dinner can help to sustain hunger during the night. Younger babies may benefit from a “dream-feed.” 

Always speak to your healthcare provider if you are concerned. 

Food containing caffeine (such as chocolate, cola, and some teas) can keep your child awake. If you do decide to include these in your child’s diet, they are better offered after sleep rather than before. 

Have a calm, relaxing pre-sleep routine to help relax your child’s nervous system so they are primed for sleep. The routine serves as a cue to your little one that it’s time to transition from playtime to sleep time. Remember to be consistent! 

At the end of the day, we all want our children to be happy and healthy. There is still so much to learn in terms of sleep, however, what we already know is that for our children to have the best chance of learning new things and staying well, they need good, quality sleep.

Sleep and cognitive development FAQ

Q: How much sleep do children need for optimal cognitive development?


How much sleep your child needs really depends on their age. The table above indicates the typical amount of sleep your child will need however understanding that there will be some variance in those totals depending on your child’s specific sleep needs.

Q: What is the impact of insufficient sleep on a child's ability to learn?


Sleep is food for the brain. If your child is not getting enough quality sleep, their brain will struggle to make long-term memories. Memories consolidate and store learned information.

Q: Are there specific sleep disorders that can impact a child's cognitive development?


Yes. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), insomnia, parasomnias (sleeping waking, sleep talking, night terrors, etc) and restless legs syndrome are sleep disorders that affect the quality of sleep. Underlying medical issues, certain medications, neurological disorders, and temporary life disruptions can cause them. If you are concerned, we always recommend you discuss any worries with your trusted healthcare provider.

Q: How can I establish a healthy bedtime routine for my child to enhance their sleep?


About 30 - 45 minutes prior to bedtime, offer a bath or wipe down, PJs on, book or song, kiss, and cuddle before switching the lights off. Keep the steps in the same order each night as this becomes the perfect sleep cue.

Q: How can I address bedtime resistance or difficulty falling asleep in my child?


Bedtime resistance can often signal a schedule adjustment is required. Keep an eye on age-appropriate awake windows and tired sign cues.

Q: Does screen time before bedtime affect a child's sleep quality?


Yes, light exposure can have a huge impact on sleepiness levels. White, blue, and green hues from electronic devices can suppress the sleep hormone melatonin causing your child to stay awake. We recommend avoiding all technology an hour before bedtime.

Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.

7 Sources


  1. Mindell JA, Kuhn B, Lewin DS et al. (2006). Behavioral treatment of bedtime problems and night wakings in infants and young children. SLEEP.

  2. Fan Jiang (2019). Sleep and Early Brain Development. Ann Nutr Metab.

  3. Lokhandwala, Sanna & Spencer, Rebecca. (2022). Relations between sleep patterns early in life and brain development: A review. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. 56. 101130.

  4. Lenehan, S. et al. (2022). The Architecture of Early Childhood Sleep Over the First Two Years.

  5. National Institutes of Health (2022). Children’s sleep linked to brain development.

  6. Blume, C., Garbazza, C., & Spitschan, M. (2019). Effects of light on human circadian rhythms, sleep and mood. Somnologie, 23(3), 147-156.