In fact, along with having a healthy, balanced diet and doing regular physical exercise, it is one of the ‘foundation stones’ of building physical and mental wellbeing.
Current research shows that primary school age children require 9-10 hours of quality (ie. unbroken, uninterrupted) sleep each night, and teenagers need 8-9 hours sleep.
We know that many children and teenagers are not getting enough sleep, on a regular basis. The reasons for this are numerous, with the main ones being the pressures of homework and revision; numerous extra-curricular activities; digital distractions such as TV viewing, smartphone use and computer gaming; anxiety or worries at night-time; and physical health problems impacting on sleep.
The long-term negative effects of having inadequate sleep are numerous and potentially serious. Both physical and psychological health can be adversely impacted. We know that the body’s immune system and the brain ‘repair’ themselves during deep sleep, so missing out on this can make us more prone to coughs and colds, other infections, anxiety, memory and recall problems, and even depression. Inadequate sleep, especially when associated with a condition called sleep apnoea, can cause long term difficulties with body-weight control.
Strategies and tips for parents
- A key strategy for having healthy sleep patterns is sticking to a set bed-time and waking-up time, both through the school week and also into the weekend, as much as is practicable. The brain and the body can take up to a few weeks to fully get into the ‘habit’ of a quality, deep sleep, so it is important to stick to a routine.
- In the 60 minutes or so before the planned ‘lights out’ time, avoid strenuous exercise, heavy meals, caffeinated drinks, and stimulating online activities such as gaming, watching videos or social media use. Reading a book, with a gentle bedside-lamp, or doing a few minutes of relaxation, works very well for many people.
- The intense ‘blue’ light that computers and smartphones use, to improve the clarity of the screen images can directly affect sleep quality by supressing the brain chemical melatonin. Young people appear more sensitive to this effect. This is why strictly adhering to a ‘sixty minute rule’ around screen usage before bedtime is important, even for senior students. If screens must be used within this time period, try dimming the screen’s brightness, or setting it to ‘night-mode’ which automatically reduces the blue light emitted. Another strategy is to purchase orange-tinted glasses which reportedly absorb this blue light before it gets to the eye, though this does not work for everyone. Another point to remember is that phone screens are almost always held much closer to the eye, than a laptop or tablet device; if possible try to utilise the latter types of device instead of the phone, to further minimise the light getting into the eye.
- For younger students, eg. in primary school or early high school, we recommend not having any devices at all in the bedroom. This will avoid them being distracted by automatic updates, notifications and so on, and reinforce the point that bedtime is for uninterrupted sleep, and nothing else. Having a shared overnight ‘recharge area’ for all devices in the common or living area is one suggestion, and this also models good behaviour for the whole family.
- Try to avoid ‘catch up sleep’ at the weekends. It often does feel good to have a well-deserved sleep-in for a few hours after a busy or stressful week, but what this risks doing in the longer term is stopping the mind and body from achieving a stable and predictable sleep-wake cycle.
- Remember, it can take a few weeks for the mind and body to fully adjust to a new sleep timetable. So, don’t expect quick results! The key is planning ahead, preparing well, and maintaining your healthy habits.
- Speaking from my medical experience, we know that more and more young people are using medications, and sometimes over-the-counter or herbal preparations, to improve their sleep. The commonest mediation here is melatonin, which is actually a naturally-occurring brain hormone and thus not a ‘medicine’. My view is that otherwise healthy, fit young people should not be using things like melatonin (which can now be purchased over the internet) for more than a few weeks; rather, sticking to the strategies outlined above are much more preferable!
- There are many useful Apps, websites or video-clips available to assist with improving sleep patterns, and assist relaxation in the evenings. Some are free, some may charge a small amount to download. Try to see which ones may work for you and the family. Two websites that I recommend, designed by specialists in the field and using evidence-based principles and research, are www.thesleepconnection.com.au and www.sleepshack.com.au
- Finally, if the sleep issues and difficulties persist despite active efforts to improve the situation, it may be useful to discuss this with a health professional. GPs are very familiar with managing sleep problems in young people. They will also be able to refer you to a specialist if the problems are serious, such as a neurologist, sleep-medicine specialist, or psychologist.
Dr Philip Tam, Psychiatrist and Knox Researcher in Residence