Sleep and Nutrition
Get Your Kid Some Sleep and Fuel
If there’s one thing you can do to instantly improve your child’s performance, not just on her test prep but on every single thing she does, it’s this:
Make sure your child is getting AT LEAST 7 hours of sleep per night.
This isn’t optional. This isn’t something to be negotiated. If your child is getting less than 7 hours per night, she is going to be a total mental wreck. I want to start this chapter by talking about the “Performance Breaking Point.”
Sleep researchers, neuroscientists, and performance experts have all identified a magic number that I’ll call the Performance Breaking Point: 6 hours of sleep. If you get less than 6 hours of sleep per night, your mental and physical performance can literally be cut in half. If you’re getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night, you might as well not even try to function as a human being.
Two studies will be of particular interest to you:
1. In a recent study, researchers found that adults who got less than 6 hours of sleep per night for only three nights in a row were more dangerous behind a wheel of a car than someone who was legally intoxicated. When you’re sleep deprived, your judgment, your reflexes, your motor skills, your perception, and your general cognitive abilities all fall below the level of someone with a blood alcohol percentage of 0.08%.
If you’re letting your child study while sleep deprived, you might as well let him study while he’s drunk. He’ll get just about the same amount done.
2. In another recent study, researchers found that when people get less than 6 hours of sleep per night for more than five nights in a row, their IQ drops by over 20 points. Just in case you’re not aware, the difference of 20 IQ points is the difference between someone categorized as “Average Intelligence” and someone categorized as a “Genius,” or the difference between someone of “Average Intelligence” and of someone who is “Mentally Handicapped.”
If your child is sleep deprived, he is only 4/5ths as intelligent as he should be.
Sleep deprivation makes you slow, stupid, non-retentive, exhausted, and inefficient.
The most shocking thing about all this research is that most people feel that 6 hours is a sufficient level of sleep. It’s not. Not even close. Below 6 hours, your brain is running on fumes.
Before we get into what you need to do about it, I want to bring up a very common objection I hear from parents and students alike.
“If I sleep for 7 hours a night, I won’t have the time I need to get everything done!”
False. In fact, if you spent more time sleeping, you’ll achieve far more in far less time. Here’s why:
When your brain is sleep deprived, which is defined as “getting less than 6 hours of sleep for more than 2 nights in a row,” your brain is only operating at 70% of its maximum capacity. And that number drops dramatically the less hours you get, or the more nights in a row that you only sleep for 5.5 hours or less.
Let’s assume that your brain can produce “100 widgets of thought” per hour when it’s operating at full capacity. This is a simplification, but it’s important to look at this numerically. If you get 8 hours of sleep a night, that means you have 16 hours to think. In that time, you can produce 1,600 “widgets of thought” in an average day.
Now imagine that you try to produce more “thought widgets” by sleeping less. So you start sleeping for only 6 hours a night. Wow! Two extra hours of production! Sounds like you’ll be getting a lot more done! Until you look at the numbers….
18 hours X 70 widgets per hour (reflecting your reduced efficiency) = 1,260 widgets of thought per day.
Even though giving up sleep can allow you to work for 12.5% more hours per day, you’re actually reducing your mental output by 21.25% a day!
The scary thing is that this isn’t just some hypothetical situation – this is science, pure and simple. When you’re tired, you don’t get as much done. You might think you’re getting more done, because you’re working more hours, but you’re not. You’re actually a shadow of your potential self. And because your judgment is so significantly damaged by your reduced level of sleep, you’re deluded into thinking that you’re still as efficient. Frankly, it’s a horrifying cycle.
“But Anthony – I routinely only get 6 hours of sleep a night, and I feel totally fine!”
This is something I hear all the time from my students and from their parents, whom I expect to set a good example (we’ll get into that in a moment). I have two responses to this claim:
1. You might FEEL fine, but you’re not PERFORMING fine. At all. There’s a big difference between feeling tired and being tired. Some people are able to go through life in a state of pure sleep deprivation without feeling exhausted. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t exhausted. In fact, when you feel tired, it’s not just a sign that you’re “a bit sleepy” – when you feel tired, you are extremely sleep deprived. It’s much like dehydration. You can be completely dehydrated without actually feeling thirsty. Once you feel thirsty, you’re actually already dangerously dehydrated. So you might feel like you don’t need more sleep, but trust science – you do.
2. You’ll feel a lot BETTER if you get some more sleep. I issue you a challenge. If you’re used to getting 6 or less hours of sleep a night, take the next three nights and sleep for 8 hours. Force yourself to do it. Then see how you feel. If you’re like every human being alive, you will end up feeling happier, more energetic, more enthusiastic, sharper, clearer, healthier, more outgoing, and more physically powerful. Once you get used to being properly rested, you’ll quickly realize how “not fine” you actually feel most of the time.
This is a book about test prep, not physical health, but test prep performance only improves when your child’s mind and body are working at optimal levels. If your child’s brain is functioning at 70%, do you think she’ll be able to perform in the 99th percentile on anything?
When your child is sleep deprived, the sleep deprivation has a COMPOUND effect.
Because every aspect of his mental functioning is going to be at or around 70%, he’s actually going to perform at far lower than 70% of his total potential. Think about it in terms of two very simple variables:
If your son is only 70% as attentive as he would be when rested, and if his retention, or memory capabilities, are only at 70% of what they should be, then a session of studying will only yield 49% of the results that it should. He’ll only pick up 70% as much, and he’ll only remember 70% as much of what he does pick up, meaning that he’ll end up learning less than half of what he should.
Sadly, attention and retention are only two of hundreds of variables at play when it comes to mental performance. But they are the two most important factors at play. When it comes to test prep, there are three gears that need to be switched on in your child’s brain:
1. Attention capabilities, which will allow your child to notice what needs to be studied and study it effectively.
2. Calculation and reasoning capabilities, which will allow your child to apply material properly to his or her studies.
3. Retention capabilities, which will allow your child to remember what he/she has learned.
#3 is arguably the most important. What is the point of studying if you’re not going to remember anything that you’ve learned? I’m going to get into the practical applications of this information shortly, but I do need to bring up one last extremely important point:
THE PRIMARY FUNCTION OF SLEEP IS TO ORGANIZE AND SOLIDIFY YOUR MEMORIES. While you’re in the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stages of sleep, your brain moves the information it came across during the day from short-term to long-term memory. Without REM sleep, you literally don’t remember anything. Researchers have shown that the longer you sleep, the more REM you get proportionally.
In other words, if you sleep for 8 hours, you’re not just getting 1.33 times as much REM as if you sleep for 6 hours. You’re actually getting vastly more. The longer you sleep, the more time your brain spends proportionally in an REM state.
If your child doesn’t get at least 7 hours of sleep a night, she’ll barely remember anything that she studies. This is damning if she’s trying to do better on the SAT or ACT. These tests aren’t ones that you can “cram” for – they require the integration of thousands of long-term memories that students need to be able to access at the drop of a hat.
Don’t expect noticeable results from your child if you’re not requiring him to get enough sleep.
The more sleep you get earlier in life, the healthier your brain and your body will be. It’s upsetting that students sleep the least at a time when they should really be sleeping the most. Lack of sleep can lead to depression, anxiety, weight gain, poor performance, and aggression. Worse yet, lack of sleep can cause or severely exacerbate many of the most common learning disabilities. If your child has ADHD, put him to bed for 8 hours a night and see what happens to his symptoms. Most of the time, the extra sleep will do more than any prescription possibly could.
Hopefully, you’re convinced by now that your child needs to get more sleep. A quick note on how much:
7 hours is considered the “Performance Leveling Point.” In other words, if you sleep for 7 hours or more a night, then you won’t notice a drop in your potential performance. You could theoretically sleep for 7 hours a night every night for the rest of your life performing and feeling perfectly fine.
8 hours is considered the “Performance Enhancement Point.” If you can get 8 hours or more of sleep a night, you’ll actually perform at a higher level than your base level of cognitive performance. If you really want to do well in life, try to get 8 hours of sleep. You might feel like you’re giving up “time to live your life,” but in fact, the life you do live will be happier, livelier, more productive, and vastly more enjoyable.
If you sleep 8 hours a night, one interesting thing you’ll notice is that your friends will start to notice. You’ll suddenly be told that you “look healthier,” that you’re “a better listener,” that you “seem happier,” and that “you’re back to your old self.” That’s because extra sleep makes you more outgoing, more attentive, healthier, happier, and more prone to be around others. Just a nice little fringe benefit…
How To Get Your Kid to Sleep More
Now that you understand how essential sleep is, we need to delve into ways in which you can ensure that your kid gets enough of it. In my experience, there is nothing is more important that parents can do to implement a new routine with their children, than to set the right example themselves.
There is NOTHING that drives adolescents more insane than parents who don’t “practice what they preach.” If you think you can tell your child to go to bed early, then stay late up watching Jimmy Kimmel every night, there is zero chance that your child will follow your request. They will resist you like crazy, because they’ll (easily) realize that you don’t believe in the very thing you’re telling them to do.
If you want your kid to sleep more, the first step is to get to bed at a reasonable time yourself. You can’t skip this option. If you work a night shift, or if you have incredible demands on your time, then make sure that you illustrate to your child that, while you’re not sleeping at the same time that she is, you’re still getting just as much of it.
If you don’t get 7 hours of sleep a night, don’t expect your child to, either. Make sleep a non-negotiable part of your parenting style.
My mother forced me to go to bed at 9pm every single night all the way through 8th grade. We’d usually wake up at 7 or 7:30 to get ready for school the next morning. For the first 14 years of my life, I was getting a minimum of 10 hours of sleep per night. Does this seem excessive? To a lot of my friends, it did. But a lot of my friends didn’t have straight A averages, perfect health, and 99th percentile test scores, either (my brother and I are also about 6 inches taller than anyone else in our family, even though we look exactly like everyone else, which I think had a lot to do with sleep!).
Side note: my GPA all through middle school was a 4.0. Then I went to boarding school and stopped sleeping as much. My GPA was in the bottom fourth of my high school class. Coincidence?
Children react best to well-defined rules that are consistently applied. Childhood psychologists have shown that two factors are more important than ANY others in producing healthy, happy, productive members of society:
1. “Separating the child from the deed.” In other words, when your child does something bad, let her know that you love her, and that she is good, but that her action was bad. On the other hand, when your child does something good, never miss the opportunity to let her know that she did that good thing because she is so good. Children who grow up in an environment of unconditional love, who realize that their parents will always support them, but not their bad behavior, grow up happier, healthier, and more socially adjusted.
2. Well-defined rules with consistent application. If you want to raise a messed up kid, do the following:
A) Tell them they can’t do something.
B) Watch them do it.
C) Don’t punish that behavior.
Or, even worse:
A) Tell them they can do something.
B) Punish them for that behavior.
Kids feel more comfortable when they have an exact idea of what you expect, and when you consistently and rigorously enforce your expectations. This is extremely relevant to sleep.
From now on, you are a “7 hours a night” family. Your children will sleep for seven hours a night.
Minimum. Every night. No exceptions.
You want them to sleep more because you want them to be happier, healthier, and to perform better in school. You really need to make sure that this isn’t seen as a punishment, because it’s not. This is a gift, not a curse. Treat it as such.
“What if my child doesn’t agree?” Here’s where I might step into “insulting territory,” but I have to say this: YOU are the parent, and YOU are the head of your household. Not your child. Sleep is one area where there is no debate. If your child won’t do this on his own, turn off his lights, take his iPhone, unplug his TV, and confiscate his laptop. I’m not kidding. Don’t let your kid push you around. This issue is too important.
That’s all there is to it. Make it happen. All your other efforts will be watered down and ineffective unless you can make sure that your child is getting a healthy amount of sleep.
“But what if my kid insists that he/she can’t meet all his/her demands without staying up later?”
Let me answer this in the most poetic and sophisticated terms possible:
High school is hard. It’s not that hard. If your child can’t fulfill all his or her duties in 17 hours a day, and still have a healthy social life, then I’m George Clooney.
If your child has:
School: 6 hours a day
Homework: 4 hours a day
Sports: 2 hours a Day
Extracurriculars: 2 hours a Day
SAT/ACT Prep: 1.5 hours a Day
Sleep: 7 hours a night
That still leaves him/her with plenty of time to hang out with friends, pursue hobbies, etc. Notice that I assigned 4 hours of homework A DAY. That’s a lot of homework….and I already included sports and extracurriculars into the mix.
Put another way, if your child sleeps 7 hours a night, he has 119 waking hours a week. With the exception of sports matches, weekends have none of the demands that weekdays do. Subtract 30 hours for school, 28 hours for homework (I’m adding 4 hours to each day during the weekend), 15 hours of sports (I’m adding in a 5-hour Saturday match), and 14 hours a week of extracurriculars (I’m adding in a 4-hour debate meet on the weekends), then he still has 32 hours a week to mess around with friends, play the guitar, surf the web, and screw around.
If your child doesn’t think he has enough time to sleep, it’s probably because he’s inefficient and delirious from lack of sleep. I’m not kidding.
If you just read the last few paragraphs, and you honestly think your child can’t possibly function without depriving himself of sleep, then maybe you need to get some more sleep, too!
To sum this chapter up in a few key bullets:
1. If your child doesn’t get at least 7 hours of sleep a night, test prep is pointless.
2. If your child gets 7 hours or more of sleep a night, she’ll be happier, healthier, and better at every single thing that she does.
3. You need to set a good example and get 7 hours of sleep a night yourself.
4. You need to make sleep an inviolable part of your family’s rules – no exceptions.
5. Your child has enough time to get enough sleep, regardless of what they say or think.
A Quick Note on Nutrition
While sleep is the key contributor to your child’s mental performance, nutrition is also absolutely essential. If your child eats chicken nuggets, french fries, chocolate pudding, and Pepsi every day for lunch…that needs to change.
If you want to grab a book on the topic right now, I highly recommend:
Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating
It was written by a bunch of Harvard-ites, so you know that the authors must be wicked ‘smaht.
Considering how much info is packed into that book, it’s a surprisingly easy read, too.
Nutrition is always a controversial and constantly changing topic. One year, eggs are healthy, the next year, they’ll kill you. Now they’re healthy again. But here are a few nutritional points that EVERYONE agrees with, will always agree with, and that will help your child to perform at an elite level at school and on his tests:
- Drinking lots of water is essential. Over half of Americans are chronically dehydrated. Make sure your kid drinks plenty of water – and no, diet soda does not count. 64 Ounces a day of clean water is a good start. Your brain can’t function without water.
- Sugar is bad. Very bad. Reduce the amount of sugar and high fructose corn syrup in your child’s diet. The less, the better. Sugar has been shown to exacerbate learning disabilities and reduce mental performance. Not so good…
- Vegetables are good. Very good. The more vegetables you can feed your kid, the better. While there are different opinions on fruit (some say the sugar outweighs the other benefits), no one disagrees that vegetables are incredibly good for you. Make sure your kid gets at least one serving of veggies per meal, and try to mix it up so that he gets a full nutritional profile.
- Healthy fats are essential for mental performance. Get plenty of Omega 3 fatty acids and other healthy fat sources to fuel your child’s performance. The “low fat diet” myth has been destroyed. Reducing too much fat from your diet is devastating for your neural function. Try to work some fish (especially salmon), avocados, olive oil, nuts and nut butters, etc. into your child’s diet on a daily basis.
- If possible, you should be able to pronounce the ingredients. The jury is still out on exactly how bad aspartame, nitrates, artificial flavorings, preservatives, etc. are for you – but the debate isn’t between “good vs. bad” – it’s between “not that bad vs. absolutely horrible.” Natural foods are less convenient, but far healthier. Try as hard as you can to limit your child’s intake of things you can’t pronounce – no one will argue that eating a chemical lab is good for your performance.
Now that you have the fuel, it’s time to discuss the tools.
If you get your kid enough sleep, feed him right, and keep him hydrated, he’s going to be performing at the highest possible level. Next up, it’s time to give him the tools he needs to achieve the best scores possible. For that, we’ll move on to our next guide!