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The Importance of Sleep

Sleep and getting a 'good' night's sleep is a topic often raised with me. In part, this is due to the number of students who experience difficulties in this domain. It is estimated that 25-50% of school-aged children and up to 75% of adolescents experience issues with their sleep. Young people, in particular, are primed for delayed sleep-wake patterns, often experiencing difficulties falling asleep to gain sufficient rest before school.

During times of stress or strong emotions, it is common for young people and adults alike to experience disruptions to regular sleep patterns or for the quality of sleep to drop. In the current circumstances, this may be attributable to social isolation, an increase in family pressures, and generally elevated levels of anxiety within the community. The negative impact of insufficient or inadequate quality sleep can be far-reaching (e.g., mood, decision making, mental health, pain, concentration, memory, learning, physical fitness, and relationships) with daily functioning often impacted. 

So, how much is enough? How much are young people getting? And how do we get more of the good stuff?

How much sleep do children and adolescents need?

Guidance from the Sleep Health Foundation suggests the following:

Age

Recommended

3-5 years

10-13 hours

6-13 years

9-11 hours

14-17 years

8-10 hours


How much are Australian children and adolescents getting?

According to the Growing Up in Australia study, which involves 10,000 young people and their families, average sleep durations are as shown in the chart below. 

As these are averages, some young people are getting more, and some getting less. However, researchers concluded that nearly all 6-7-year-olds were getting the minimum required hours of sleep, with children aged 12-17 being less likely to do so, with only half of 16-17-year-olds meeting the minimum requirements. Interestingly 4/5 children thought they were getting enough sleep when they were not (based on the guidelines). Those not meeting the minimum guidelines were, amongst other things, more likely to exhibit symptoms of poor mental health. It's why, as a psychologist, I have such a keen interest in sleep.

Sleep is like a butterfly, it's not something that you can force to come to you on command, but if you can practice relaxing, be quiet, and still, you give yourself the best chance that it will land on your shoulder. The following suggestions are here to help if you or your loved ones are finding it hard to get sufficient sleep, particularly in the current climate. I hope that you find them useful:

  1. Limit media exposure. Massive exposure to the 24-hour media cycle can add to worries and interfere with our ability to relax.
  2. Take care of your mind by making time to unwind. It's especially important in an hour or so before going to sleep.
  3. Take care of your body by exercising during the day.
  4. Try to avoid studying or entertainment in bed as we want our minds to associate the bed with falling asleep and staying asleep.
  5. Don't get stuck on the numbers. While the above guidelines are helpful when thinking about adequate sleep, it's essential to remember that some people need more, while others need less. How tired you are the next day is the best indicator of whether you're getting enough sleep. 
  6. Knowing the impact of poor sleep can motivate family members to make changes to their sleep habits. Getting those who are less motivated to make changes to research the effect may help them to shift their thinking.
  7. Regularly wake at a designated time, expose ourselves to light (sunlight or other bright light), eat breakfast, and engage in some form of movement or exercise early in our day. By maintaining a consistent sleep-wake routine (even on the weekend), we assist ourselves in falling asleep at night.
  8. Even short daytime naps can make it challenging to get to sleep at night (if you have trouble sleeping already), so try to avoid these where possible.
  9. Bedrooms need to be dark, fresh, and quiet. Adjusting these factors be covering sources of light, accessing alternate bedding options, or using earbuds may help to maximise sleep hormones.
  10. Knowing the research on the impact of blue light on melatonin levels and how this makes us feel more alert at night can help us stick to 'switch off' times.
  11. If you're not asleep 20-30 minutes after closing your eyes, get out of bed and do something boring for a few minutes before trying again (repeat as needed).
  12. Manage judgments, expectations, and catastrophic thinking – it is not the end of the world if we don't get enough sleep sometimes, we will get through the next day ok. 

Further reading:

https://www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au
https://www.sleepfoundation.org
Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) Annual Statistical Report 2018

Useful apps:

  • Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock
  • SmilingMind
  • Calm
  • Headspace

Wishing you all bountiful and restful sleep

HENRY BELL
Educational and Developmental Psychologist