The importance of sleep

I was lucky enough to receive a Fitbit as a Christmas gift and rather than making me more active and more aware of taking regular breaks from the computer; it has instead made me obsessive about my sleep. I have always been a big sleep fan and on holiday will snooze for a ten hour stretch every night when given the chance. Obviously having children has interfered with this somewhat...!

Sleep is a complicated thing – we not only need to be getting the right amount of total sleep but we also need to get enough of each type of sleep and to sleep at a time when the body is ready to do so. Deficiency in any of these areas can affect learning, focus and reaction speed; it can make you feel frustrated, grumpy or anxious. In children, a lack of sleep can lead to hyperactivity and trouble paying attention. It may increase misbehaviour and school performance may be affected. It is worth noting too that children need more sleep when they are growing and that a teenager’s natural sleep cycle starts later at night than an adult’s.

Types of sleep

The Fitbit measures three different types of sleep – REM (where rapid eye movement occurs, your muscles are unresponsive and vivid dreams occur), light sleep (where you are sometimes aware of the outside world but not able to understand the content) and deep sleep (where you are unaware of any sounds or the outside world and where nightmares and sleep walking/talking may occur).

It is recommended that primary school children sleep for 9-12 hours a night and secondary students for 8-10 hours. Children generally have more deep sleep than adults and if woken during this stage will feel very tired and take up to half an hour before they reach normal mental performance. Just a few nights of losing sleep, even as little as an hour a night, can lead to a reduced ability to function as if you have not slept at all for 1-2 days.

Lack of REM sleep in particular has been proven to reduce the ability to learn complex tasks. This is especially important in childhood and is reflected by the fact that REM sleep makes up a much higher percentage of total sleep in children than in adults. The parts of the brain involved in long-term memory and emotion are very active during REM sleep and we spend longer in REM sleep after a day when we have had to learn a lot of new tasks. Interestingly, if we don’t get enough REM sleep at the end of a day then the body will try to make up for that the following night, sacrificing light and deep sleep to do so.

The importance of sleep

Many studies have shown that good sleep improves learning and problem-solving skills. It helps us to pay attention, make good decisions, be creative, control our emotions and to cope with change. Children and teenagers that are sleep deficient can become anxious, risk-taking, angry, impulsive, have trouble getting along with their peers and feel stressed. They take longer to finish tasks and make more mistakes. Children are more clumsy and impulsive when they do not get enough sleep and are more likely to have accidents. Young children can even be misdiagnosed with ADHD as the symptoms of sleep deprivation and ADHD are very similar at this age. Research has found that adding only an extra half an hour of sleep per night can improve this.

Sleep also gives our bodies time to heal and repair. Deep sleep triggers the release of hormones that promote normal growth in children and teenagers, also playing a role in puberty and fertility. It helps to create muscle and repair cells and tissues in the body. The immune system can be less responsive when sleep is cut short, making us more prone to infections.

Sleep maintains a healthy balance of hormones and blood sugar levels. Not getting enough has been linked with obesity – one study of teenagers found that with each hour of sleep deficit, the chances of obesity increased. Teenagers crave higher fat or carb food when they are tired and tend to be more sedentary, burning less calories. They are also at a higher risk of sleep deficiency in term-time as early starts at school do not fit in with their later sleep cycle.

Signs of sleep deficiency

The most obvious sign of sleep deficiency is feeling tired during the day, i.e. dozing off during a short car journey, in lessons or when sitting watching TV. Children or teenagers may become unusually indecisive or forgetful; display excessive emotions or behaviour; be unable to cope with change. They may be angry and impulsive; have mood swings; have little motivation or seem depressed.

How to help

Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. For younger children, establish a bedtime routine. Staying up late or sleeping in late by more than an hour can disrupt the body’s natural sleep pattern. Avoid bright artificial lights for the hour before bedtime. This includes the TV and all screens. Try to be outdoors or be physically active every day. During term time, allow teenagers to take daytime naps of no more than 20 minutes at a time. Remove sound and light distractions from their bedrooms to help them sleep as early as possible in the evening.

In summary...

Getting enough sleep is vital for everyone but is especially important for children and teenagers while they are going through such an intense period of growth, learning and change. A shortage of sleep can lead to mood swings, behavioral problems and cognitive problems that impact on their ability to learn in school.