By Dr Pooky Knightsmith
An often overlooked part of emotional wellbeing and academic performance is teenagers’ sleep patterns. Teenagers need between nine and 10 hours of sleep per night – more than any age group other than the under-fives. Most UK teens average less than eight, meaning that they are chronically sleep deprived. This can lead to[i]:
• Difficulty concentrating in class, memory impairment, and shortened attention span, which can lead to reduced academic performance.
• Poor decision making and risk-taking behaviour.
•Lack of enthusiasm, moodiness or sustained low mood, and aggression.
• Slower physical reflexes and reduced sporting performance.
• Absence and truancy.
With exams approaching, here are some simple suggestions you can share with your child to help them optimise their sleep.
When it feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day, prioritising sleep can be difficult.
Teenagers should be encouraged to assess their weekly schedule with the support of parents or teachers and honestly consider whether they’re trying to fit too much in. Over commitment to study, sport or social activities can all rapidly eat into sleep schedules.
The use of smartphones, tablets and games consoles close to bed time can affect users’ ability to switch off and sleep, and make things worse.
Studies have shown that even an additional half an hour a day can have a direct impact on wellbeing and achievement. Consider what could be dropped to make time for much needed rest.
Routine, routine, routine
Improve the likelihood of falling asleep quickly and deeply by doing the following:
- Having a regular bed time and get up time – even at the weekend.
- Having a relaxing bedtime routine – many people find a warm drink, a bath or calming activities such as reading or yoga helpful.
- Avoid stimulation in the form of study, sport or caffeine for at least an hour before bed. Remember, caffeine isn’t just in coffee and tea, but also chocolate.
Creating a good space for sleep
A good sleeping environment can also help you to sleep more quickly and more soundly. Things to consider include:
- A comfortable bed and bedding that is suited to the time of year.
- The room being at the right temperature.
- A room that is dark enough (but that lets light in when it’s time to get up).
- Quiet – use earplugs if needed.
- Encouraging the association between the bedroom and sleeping by carrying out other activities (studying, chatting to friends) somewhere else. Where this is not possible, the next best step might be creating separate ‘zones’ in the room for studying or chatting to friends, and reserving the bed for sleeping.
Sleep vs study
Many young people think that they will gain academic benefit by studying longer and harder. This is not true when study eats into sleep time or results in an overstimulated brain unready for sleep. Simple steps to take include:
- Ensuring children understand that study becomes counter-productive when they forfeit sleep.
- Encouraging them to schedule their study for earlier in the evening/day.
- Suggesting time limits for study where needed.
Another common issue is that many teens find it hard to switch off from the online world and that this can eat into their sleep. I'd recommend that ideally, teens should be encouraged to take themselves completely offline each night, perhaps an hour or so before bedtime. This suggestion is unlikely to go down well with many teens, but some simple steps which can help improve sleep quality include:
- Turning devices onto ‘do not disturb’ when going to sleep.
- Specifically ending and logging out of online conversations before going to sleep.
- Not sleeping within arms’ reach of online devices.
- Having a half-hour offline period at the start and end of each day.
- Keeping device chargers outside of the bedroom, so teens have to go to bed without their devices.
There are many reasons that people struggle to sleep. Some simple strategies that can help include:
- Keeping a notebook by the bed to note down any worries or to-dos that come to mind so we can return to them in the morning.
- Listening to soothing music or practising mindfulness or relaxed breathing.
- Getting up for half an hour and doing something that’s not too stimulating, such as reading for pleasure. When we really can’t sleep, we need to avoid rewiring our brains to associate our bed with wakefulness by lying staring at the ceiling and worrying.
When to seek further support
Issues such as anxiety and depression can lead to difficulties sleeping. In turn, difficulties sleeping can make these issues worse. If you’re concerned that this may be an issue for your child, they should be encouraged to seek support and treatment via their GP.
Mental Health Foundation – How to Sleep Better
Sleepio – an organisation which aims to help people sleep better
Dr Pooky Knightsmith is the director of the children, young people and school’s programme at the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust. The Trust provides workshops for parents, teachers and school staff to raise awareness of mental health issues.
First published April 2016
[i] ‘Teenagers and Sleep’, Victoria State Government, Better Health Initiative