Reduce the national sleep debt
- Posted by:
- Michael Grose
Many children struggle to get a good night’s sleep. Unrefreshing sleep, difficulty falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, early morning awakening and nightmares are among the most common issues that affect children.
Interestingly, many parents underestimate the importance of sleep on children’s learning and well-being. As a community we lack a great deal of knowledge about what’s required to get a good night’s sleep.
How much sleep is enough?
All children differ in the amount of sleep they require. Most pre schoolers need about 10 to 12 hours a day. At nine, it’s closer to ten hours. When puberty hits, kids still need between eight and nine hours sleep, yet most get less than this.
As they progress through puberty teenagers need more sleep. The developing body and their brain place extra demands on their systems at a time when their schedules overflow with activities. Sleep needs to ramp up again. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many teenagers are chronically sleep deprived and lack sufficient sleep to function well.
Sleep deprivation has a compounding affect so an hour less per night is like a full night without sleep by the end of the week. Lack of sleep can lead to inattentiveness at school, poor memory, inconsistent performance, bad temper and even stimulant use as a sleep substitute.
Teenagers sleep cycle is delayed
The sleep-wake cycle for teenagers is delayed by up to two hours, so they are sleepy later and awake later than when they were children.
The body clock, which was more variable in pre teen years, becomes more fixed in adolescence. Most teens secrete melatonin, which makes them sleepy, around 11.00pm, which makes the time before then a sleepless zone. Children secrete melatonin far earlier than this.
Cortisol, the chemical that wakes them up, is secreted at around 8.15am for many teens. It seems the teen brain wants to be asleep just when they have woken up.
One US study found that 20% of teens were asleep in class in the morning, which had catastrophic effects on learning. As a result some high schools in the US have delayed the start of school time to accommodate the teen sleep-wake cycle. This has enabled teens not only to get more sleep but to be at their best (or at least awake) when they are at school.
The results in these schools have been startling and immediate including: better learning, better behaviour, less fights and less kids dropping out of school.
Ideas to help:
Sleep experts stress that while adults may not have control over children’s biology we can assist by helping children and teens establish good sleep patterns. Children who develop good sleep patterns tend to carry these into adolescence.
1. Encourage regular bed-times. Kids may fight this, but regular bed-times during the week and later bed-times on weekends are the best options for kids of all ages.
2. Make sure there is a wind-down time. Up to 45 minutes wind-down time is the recommendation from most sleep experts. This includes, removing TV and other stimuli, calming children down, and limiting food intake (and caffeine for teens). In fact, parents should set an alarm clock 45 minutes before bedtime to signal the start of a bed-time routine.
3. Establish a bed-time routine. This might be bath, teeth-cleaning and story that signals psychologically that it is time for sleep.
4. Keep bedrooms for sleep. Encourage parents to remove the TV and computers from children’s and young people’s bedrooms. A cave-like atmosphere is the aim.
5. Maximise the 3 sleep cues: By maintaining a dark room; lowering body temperature and recognising the role that melatonin plays parents can develop good sleep hygiene habits that will stay for life.
Sleep is one thing that we can all become educated about. We take it for granted and often view poor sleepers through a behavioural lens. Better knowledge of the biology of sleep and also sleep patterns will go a long way to helping kids and teens get a good night’s sleep.
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