Sleep is widely acknowledged as being essential for good emotional, cognitive and general health. The length of sleep matters as does the quality. Sleep comes in 90-minute cycles and our brains need 4-6 complete cycles each night to consolidate learning and lay down long term memory. Broken sleep will damage this process.
Too many of us are not getting enough sleep.
Sleep deprivation is a growing problem. The recommended amount of 7-8 hours every night (more for children and adolescents) is often ignored or traded for more play time or work time and it comes with a huge cost to our cognition, health and safety.
Laptops, i-pads and smart phones all help to keep us connected and able to access infitsimal amounts of information. However the way they are used can sometimes interfere with good learning.
Keep technology out of the bedroom.
Some statistics suggest that of those children who own smart phones, up to 60% of them take them to bed each night. Far from being a substitute for a teddy or plush toy they are used for texting friends. Those 2 a.m. messages are disturbing in more than one way; they can lead to irritability, poor attention, reduced learning capacity and lower academic performance.
Screen time in particular can interfere with the brain's sleep wake cycle. Computers laptops and iPads have quite a bluish light, which is highly stimulating to the brain. This can have the effect of making the brain think it is still daytime and reduces the amount of the sleep hormone melatonin being produced by the brain's pineal gland.
Lower melatonin can be associated with poorer quality sleep.
Use a pre-bedtime routine.
Getting enough sleep can be a challenge in our busy lives. The brain likes to prepare for sleep by gradually winding down brain activity. For younger children the pre-bedtime routine of bath, putting on the pyjamas and snuggling down for a bedtime story is a fabulous way of preparing for sleep.
As children get a bit older that routine can be varied to still be as relevant to allow busy brains to quieten down.
A good way to help here is to encourage all homework to be completed by a pre-agreed time. Tired brains don't work as well, so staying up late to finish projects or assignments may lead to lower performance and of course a tired brain for school the next day.
As adults we too can gain a better night's sleep by allowing ourselves an hour or so to unwind and prepare for bed. Too many people keep their brain active and alert until late in the evening and then go to bed expecting to sleep and wonder why they can't get their brain to switch off!
Keep bedtime and getting uptime as consistent as possible.
Having a regular get up time is what matters. Adolescents often experience a change in their body clock - their brains want them to sleep in until later. Unfortunately our education system doesn't allow for this, so many teenagers struggle to be awake and alert early in the morning. The temptation then is to allow them to sleep in on the weekends or during the school holidays. Unfortunately this disrupts the sleep cycle even more and makes getting back into the school time routine harder.
This can then set the person up for continuing disruption of their sleep wake cycle; setting up poor sleep habits for later in life. Maintaining a regular time for going to bed and getting up is what matters, although this is sometimes easier said than done!
It’s like the jet lag we can experience when we cross a number of time zones when travelling. When we feel jet lagged we may feel headachy or grumpy, have digestive disturbance as well as reduced mental performance. It takes the body one full day to adjust to one hour of time difference.
Sleep is as important as healthy nutrition and exercise for great mental performance.
No matter your age, you need enough sleep to function at your best and stay healthy. If you are waking up naturally each morning without an alarm clock, feeling refreshed and invigorated: you are getting enough sleep.
If not, then perhaps it's time to get your sleeping habits sorted.