Students' No. 1 Need: Sleep

By Sharon Naylor

June 6, 2012 6 min read

Students who skimp on sleep suffer more than just bleary eyes at the breakfast table. According to Mary A. Carskadon, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and human behavior and expert at the Sleep for Science Research Lab at Brown University says, "Evidence abounds to indicate that sleeping well -- 8.5-plus hours with a regular schedule -- supports learning, psychological well-being and physical health. Good sleep makes paying attention and concentrating in school easier, improves the ability to recall and retain information, and the sleep that occurs after effective learning helps to consolidate and even augment the daytime learning. A number of studies show a marked tendency toward better grades in teens who sleep well." Skimping on sleep often results in a lower GPA.

Quality sleep also heightens sports performance. Carskadon says, "When sleeping too little, one of the most notable deficits is in reaction time ... to stimuli in the environment. Better sleep promotes faster reaction times that can have a significant impact on sports performance, along with improved attention and concentration." Your student-athlete could see his or her achievements on the field or court skyrocket, perhaps leading to captainships and scholarships down the road, if sleep habits are improved.

Outside of school-related activities, quality sleep is important for students' health and well-being. Lack of sleep affects the immune system. Experts at the Mayo Clinic say that people who don't get enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, such as the common cold. During sleep, the immune system releases proteins that actively fight infections, inflammations and the deleterious effects of stress.

Sleep deprivation has also been linked to cardiovascular problems, obesity, diabetes and debilitating emotional states. Carskadon says, "A major negative factor that accompanies insufficient sleep is a depressed mood, which is accompanied by fatigue, lack of motivation and general malaise."

Clearly, quality sleep is a must for your student. But how much sleep do they need? Amy Korn-Reavis, coordinator of the polysomnography program at Valencia College, says, "At age 5, a child needs 12 to 14 hours of sleep, and the need decreases with age to 9 to 12 hours at age 16." These hour totals may seem long, but Korn-Reavis says that children and teens need to reach different stages of sleep. "Stage N3 or slow-wave sleep is where many hormones, including growth hormones, are produced and growth and healing occur. During REM sleep is where we consolidate our memories from short- to long-term memory." REM sleep happens at the last part of the night.

*How To Improve Your Student's Sleep Habits

Try to help your student develop a bedtime routine. A routine "tells the brain it is time to unwind and go to sleep. You can compare it to a computer that has certain tasks it needs to do before it shuts off," says Korn-Reavis. "At least one hour before bed they should not be using electronics such as TV, cellphones or game systems. The flashing light stimulates the brain, making it difficult for (the brain) to know it is bed time." This includes PCs and tablets, as well.

Sleep expert Dr. Robert Oexman of the Sleep to Live Institute advises maintaining good sleep habits in the summertime, so they won't be shocked back into the routine when back-to-school time comes along. Oexman suggests keeping to a set bedtime during summer. A child's summer bedtime may be later, but it must be regular. If you let kids run completely free, they will stay up much too late, starting a cycle of sleep deprivation.

General sleep-smart tips for kids include:

--Get eight hours of sleep. Set a routine and commit to getting at least eight hours of sleep but preferably more, if possible.

--Snack smartly. Oexman says that if children need a snack, choose a carbohydrate-rich snack such as half a bagel. "Carbs produce melatonin easier, and melatonin makes it easier for us to fall asleep," says Oexman. Avoid high-calorie, fatty or caffeinated snacks such as chocolate.

--Avoid caffeine. Kids today think that energy drinks give them a boost to stay up and do homework, but these and other caffeinated drinks interrupt sleep. So provide a variety of caffeine-free beverages, including ice-cold water with lemon.

--Ensure REM. If students have to stay up late to finish a project or study for an exam, aim for at least six hours of sleep, which allows for at least some REM sleep that consolidates memory and allows the student to remember what he or she studied.

--Block out light and noise. If your student is sensitive to noise, put a "white noise" machine in the bedroom to mask outside sounds. If light wakes the child too early, consider new curtains that block out more outside light. College students are known to wear eye masks to sleep well when a roommate stays up late.

--Be fit. Exercise boosts healthy hormones that regulate rest and sleep.

If your student experiences insomnia or other sleep issues, talk to his or her doctor for solutions.

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