Education is not a preparation for life but is life itself. - John Dewey

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sleep and Teens

Sleep is not only a biological necessity but also a physiologic drive. In today’s fast-paced world, though, sleep is often the first thing to go. … Adolescence is the time of greatest vulnerability from the standpoint of sleep.
Bill Dement, founder of the Sleep Research Center, Stanford University

I joke that I didn’t sleep more than four hours straight for almost five years when my children were babies.  The truth isn’t far from that.  Most nights during that time I slept six hours a night but almost never uninterrupted.  I relied on micro-naps, carbs, and caffeine for my energy (what there was of it).  It was not the healthiest time in my life!

Now, I cherish – relish – my sleep time and I notice the difference when my sleep needs are not met.  I am less flexible and patient during the day.  I crave unhealthy foods (more than usual) and I make poor choices in how I handle stress and the many demands on my time.

The same is true for children.  A good night’s sleep is essential for children and teens to restore their neurobehavioral systems and to consolidate learning.  There is now evidence that a child’s need for sleep actually increases during puberty, and yet the average high school student reports an average of six hours of sleep on a school night (the MayoClinic recommends nine hours or more).  

A change in an adolescent’s circadian pattern (difficulty falling asleep early and difficulty waking early) signal a normal biological shift.  However, unlike 100 years ago, we now have multiple avenues for stimulation at night (electric lights, television, computers, telephones, texting, etc.) that further delay sleep.  Additionally, some teens (and even some tweens) are allowed to self-select their bedtime at a time when the planning/prioritizing/decision-making part of the brain (the frontal lobe) is quite immature. 

What about sleeping in on the weekends?  Unfortunately, sleeping late on weekends serves to further delay the circadian pattern creating a more dysfunctional cycle during the school week.

Some of the effects of sleep deprivation in adolescents are:  napping during the day, fatigue, stimulant use (caffeine, nicotine), difficulties with self-control (attention, emotion, and behavior) and motivation, missed school, irritability, and poor learning and memory consolidation.  If that weren’t bad enough, napping and stimulant use then contribute to more difficulty falling asleep which exacerbates the already dysfunctional cycle.

So what can parents do?  The following suggestions can be found in much of the literature concerning children and sleep issues.  I particularly like how Madeline Levine addresses the issue in her book “Teach Your Children Well:  Parenting for Authentic Success” in her section titled The Tasks of the Middle School Years.  You can even implement these suggestions with your pre-schooler.  Why wait until middle school to develop good habits?
  • No electronics at least a half hour before bedtime.  This includes television, computer, smartphones, mp3 players, tablets, and video games.  The light from these screens depresses melatonin production and can delay sleep.
  • Keep these electronics out of the bedroom.  A half hour before bedtime, you take ownership over the electronics.  This ensures that your child is not sneaking screen or networking time when she should be sleeping. 
  • No caffeinated drinks in the afternoon or evening.  Obviously, this includes drinks such as 5-Hour Energy.
  •  Have a consistent bedtime and evening ritual.  This can be tough especially with evening practices/lessons and homework.  Even if your pre-bedtime routine is only 20 minutes long (shower, reading, journaling), these external cues can help trigger the relaxation response and make for a smoother transition to sleep.
  • No social networking right before bedtime.  Besides the electronics issue (see above), there is the friendship drama issue.  It is extremely difficult for adolescents to disengage from these ongoing (throughout the night) conversations.  This is not relaxing nor healthy “sleep hygiene.”
  • Beware of overscheduling.  As Madeline Levine states:  “A moderate amount of extracurriculars certainly benefits kids.  But in order to be able to relax, to put the day on hold, kids need some clear space in their heads and clear time in their days.  If the above points on sleep seem daunting to you, the quiet before bedtime, for example, then your child is doing too much.  Leave some time every day for reflection and solitude.  Your child will sleep better and so will you.”
Model these techniques yourself – yes, shut down your electronics a half hour before bedtime as well!  Your children are watching your behavior intently.  Monitor your schedule, your evening routine, and the household activity and noise before bedtime. 

For more information on this subject, check out this Frontline program on adolescent sleep needs and how sleep affects learning and memory.