Teens need sleep. We have mountains of research on the dangers of sleep deprivation — how it increases the risk of depression, makes it difficult to regulate emotions, damages health and impairs cognitive functioning. On some level, adolescents already know this. They might not be able to describe the neuroscience behind it, but they know what it feels like to be sleep-deprived.
Some middle school students I talked with said, “When I don’t get enough sleep ...”:
It’s hard to focus in class; I can’t concentrate; I can’t think clearly. My body starts to feel heavy; I get headaches; I feel clumsy. I get so grumpy; my head spins with negative thoughts; I yell or cry for no reason; I am more sensitive; I’m impatient; my emotions are just out of whack. Or, as one girl, summarized, “When I don’t get enough sleep, everything is harder.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics calls insufficient sleep in adolescents a “key public health issue” that poses a “serious risk to the physical and emotional health, academic success, and safety of our nation’s youth.”
Teens need at least eight hours of sleep per night for optimal functioning, but they aren’t getting it. In fact, by 12th grade, 75 percent of students report getting less than eight hours of sleep on school nights, compared with 16 percent of sixth-graders.
We actually learn when we dream. During dreams, your brain lights up with activity as it processes what you experienced during the day — like a neural virtual reality. It reviews and rehearses information, linking it to what you already know. All of this strengthens your neural pathways and helps you learn.
In one study from Harvard Medical School, researchers tasked college students with a challenging computer maze. After students wrestled with it for a while, they took a nap. Students who dreamed about the maze showed a marked improvement in their ability to solve it.
One of the researchers suggests taking a nap after a study session or reviewing notes shortly before bed — this might increase your odds of dreaming about the material. Most people only remember a fraction of their dreams, but even if you don’t remember your dreams, you may still benefit from them
Here are four ways to help your teen (and you) get a better night’s sleep:
- Establish a routine. New parents are often religious about bedtime routines. Teens and adults can take a lesson from how we handle babies. Our brains love routines and doing
- in a certain order alerts the brain that sleep is on the way. Going to bed at a
- time helps, too.
- Mind the blue light. Our brains are designed to get sleepier when the sun sets. The blue light emitted by smartphones, tablets, computers and TVs can make it more difficult for your body to fall into deep sleep because it can mess with the secretion of melatonin, the
- that helps regulate our sleep-wake cycles.
The workaround? Get off screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime (and keep them out of your bedroom). And when you do work on them at night, dim your screens or put them on automatic night mode (called “Night Shift” on iPhones).
- Calm your brain. Develop a set of strategies for calming the mind — from guided meditations to exercises where you
- on, and relax, each of your muscles. The free meditations from UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Resource Center are a great resource (if you use these with headphones at night, turn off your screen — remember that blue light). Also worth noting: Exercise during the day improves the depth and quality of your sleep.
- Take control of your evening. Plenty of teens and adults want more sleep — but we are really busy and have a lot of demands on our time (here’s looking at you, homework). There’s no simple solution. In addition to the workload, we live in an age of distraction. And when
- our focus, it takes
- longer to complete even small tasks.
But there are ways to take more ownership of our time, so we get things done more efficiently, leaving more time for sleep. One of my favorites is the Pomodoro Technique. First, choose a task to accomplish and turn off all distractions — text notifications, email notifications, etc. Then set a timer for 25 minutes and work until the timer goes off (several of my students use an app called Forest to help with this). Take a five-minute break: Stretch, walk around, grab a snack, etc. After three or four 25-minute intervals, take a longer break (15 to 30 minutes) to recharge.