Friday 13th March is World Sleep Day, created by the World Association of Sleep Medicine “to advance sleep health worldwide.”¹
This is also my mission, too! I’m focusing here on sleep and teenagers, as so many are unaware that they need more sleep than they’re probably actually getting; in fact, according, the National Sleep Foundation, they need nine and quarter hours sleep per night.²
The importance of sleep for teenagers
Sound sleep is essential to help us function properly and maintain good health and well-being. It is through sleep that our mind processes the day and memories are stored. Teenagers, who are typically studying for exams, need sleep to be able to learn effectively, yet so many stay up late and are then not able to get up in the morning; whilst it doesn’t seem to make sense to adult minds that they don’t go to bed earlier, most teens find it difficult to sleep “at a sensible time” and the ever-increasing distractions of the internet and mobile phone games only exacurbate the problem.
Why teenagers’ sleep habits seem so different to that of adults
Sally Weale, education correspondent for the Guardian, explains the reason why teenagers’ sleep habits seem so different to that of adults – “According to neuroscientists, teenagers’ circadian rhythms – the cycle of sleep and wakefulness – typically begin two hours after those of adults, so current school start times mean they wake up too early and are trying to focus when their body still needs sleep.”³
Her article included the work of Professor Colin Espie and Dr Kelley. Professor Espie explains that, because during the teenage years huge developmental changes are taking place in both the body and the brain, they require more sleep than adults. He plans to carry out a study to see the effects on pupils’ academic performance of delaying the school start time to 10am. Dr Kelley, who carried out the pilot study for the scheme, which saw a school start their day at 10am for a two-year period, reports many positive results including improved health and academic performance along with less illness and an improved atmosphere in the school.
More radically still, Guy Holloway, of Hampton Court House, explains why his school is “embarking on a bold experiment… to allow them to wake up later, enjoy better sleep and enable them to be more productive during those vital examination years” by delaying lessons for A-level students to 1.30 – 7pm instead of the previous start time of 8.30 am. He goes on to explain that, last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics made a case for starting school later for teenagers being “a matter of public health. Poor sleep patterns were strongly correlated with obesity, mental health disorders including depression, poor cognition and poor quality of life generally.” Mr Holloway is convinced that teenagers who are able to get nine hours’ good quality sleep per night “will be happier and will enjoy better human relationships… will be less tired overall and less prone to errors of judgement.” 4
Last but not least, some schools have discovered that their pupils benefit from learning mindfulness techniques to help them with these issues. For example, the headmaster of Fettes College, Edinburgh, and his wife have started a programme for over 13s, including “ ‘beditation’ where youngsters bring pillows and duvets and learn how best to drift off to sleep in noisy dormitories.” 5
As it may take a while before any plans to change the school start times nationally are implemented, let’s get our children into the habit of practising good sleep hygiene (i.e. how to help the mind and body prepare for sleep) to make sure that they get enough good quality sleep.
10 tips to help your teen sleep well
- Encourage a bedtime routine. Routines help the body to function efficiently and effectively.
- If at all possible (depending on their age), prevent them from taking their mobile phone into their bedroom at night; explain that the blue light emitted from the phone negatively affects sleep patterns and also that if it’s not nearby they won’t be tempted to keep checking their phone at night.
- Explain why it’s important that they stop using a computer or watching TV at least one hour before they plan to go to sleep. Turn off the Wi-Fi at night, as Wi-Fi affects sleep and young people are particularly at risk from the effects of electromagnetic radiation as their minds are still developing.
- Suggest that the hour before going to sleep should be a designated chill-out time, listening to music, reading a book, enjoying a relaxing bath etc.
- Help them to learn relaxation techniques by practicing them together or researching a local mindfulness class.
- Try to ensure that their diet is healthy and that dinner, if it is their main meal, is eaten 2 – 3 hours before bedtime. If they tend to get hungry late in the evening, even if they’ve had a fairly substantial meal earlier, a light, easily digested snack is best, such as a bowl of cereal or banana (rich in tryptophan which helps sleep).
- Encourage them to get plenty of fresh air and exercise during the day or early evening.
- Ensure that their bedroom is well-ventilated as a hot, stuffy room will result in shallower sleep.
- Discourage the consumption of caffeinated or sugary drinks (including many soft drinks), especially towards the end of the day, and encourage them to drink plenty of water and, if possible, herbal teas.
- If they’re still not sleeping well after carrying out the above, perhaps they have issues on their mind they need help to resolve. Encourage them to talk about anything that’s troubling them.
Teenage years are a busy time developmentally and emotionally so clearly it’s of the utmost importance to teach teenagers about the importance of sleep and the effects that poor sleep will have on their health and well-being. I know it’s not easy: as any parent will testify, our suddenly-not-so-little ones seem to be hardwired to do the opposite to what we suggest! However, they do still need our guidance in an increasingly complex world – do let me know of your experiences or if you have any tips!
If sleep problems are negatively affecting your life and you need advice, contact me today and let me help you start sleeping soundly again.