From the Principal

Is your child suffering from “sleep debt”?

It could be ruining his/her chances of happiness and academic success

What the research says:

  • Children are racking up huge sleep debt due to overstimulation and biological changes
  • If your child is no’t getting ten hours’ sleep a night, poor performance and moods are hard to avoid
  • If you let them go without sufficient sleep you could be doing them just as much harm allowing them to drink two beers before school every day
  • Tired children perform worse academically (drifting off in class, having difficulty concentrating)
  • They are more likely to exhibit risk-taking behaviours, moodiness, aggression, depression, clumsiness and poor decision-making
  • Adolescents need nine to ten hours sleep a night, yet research shows most are lucky to get seven hours, and 25 percent get as little as six-and-a-half hours
  • There are established links between sleep deprivation and memory formation, depression and anxiety, immune system health, obesity, car accidents, ADHD and drug, alcohol and tobacco use
  • Adolescents are the worst affected by sleep deprivation

“There is no doubt that teenagers are the most sleep-deprived segment of the population. This is a very under-recognised problem and the cost to society in the healthy development of young people is profound.” Dr Michael Carr-Gregg

Insufficient sleep means teens not only perform worse in the short-term, but there are long-term implications. “REM, or stage five sleep, is the time when the brain consolidates the information that’s been taken in during the day, and if kids don’t get enough of that REM sleep, they are simply not going to be able to process the information and consolidate it,” Dr Carr-Gregg says. “So it actually impairs their learning as well. My view is that sleep is the single most important study tool going around.”

Teenagers are also under huge pressure today from homework, part-time work, sport, social activities and family obligations, Dr Blunden, a paediatric sleep specialist at the Adelaide Centre for Sleep Research, University of South Australia, adds “We’re expecting rational and adult decision-making, yet their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed and ready to do that. If they’re not sleeping well they’re not giving themselves the best option to handle all this pressure we’re putting them under.”

The problem is compounded by the fact many kids skip breakfast as they rush out the door to school. “If you combine the lack of energy and the sleep deprivation there are a substantial proportion of kids – I’d say about 20 percent – who are simply incapable of taking in any information in schools,” Dr Carr-Gregg says. “They are literally teaching zombies.”

What’s keeping kids up?

Gadgets are mentally stimulating, and preliminary studies show that lights from mobile phones, TVs and computers may inhibit the production of melatonin. Exposure to this type of light at night could be confusing our body systems.

It’s time for parents to find their digital spine, says Dr Carr-Gregg.

“Parents need to stand up to their kids and say, you can’t have a computer or TV in your bedroom. So many parents don’t have mobile phone charging tables where all phones have to be by a certain time or you don’t get to use them the next day. Start setting boundaries.” The key is to start valuing sleep more, says Dr Carr-Gregg. “Sleep is incredibly important for the psychological and physical wellbeing of young people. We’ve arrived at a stage where many kids have been led to believe that sleep is just something that interferes with your social life, and that’s very unfortunate.”

How to improve sleep habits

  • Prioritise sleep. Teach your kids the importance of shut-eye from an early age.
  • Encourage them to do what they can the night before (have a shower, prepare their uniform and school bag) so they can sleep in a little longer in the morning.
  • Limit electronic devices in the bedroom. While Dr Carr-Gregg advocates a ban on all electronics in the bedroom, Dr Blunden says this may be unrealistic. She suggests switching everything off half an hour before bedtime.
  • Avoid stimulants like coffee, coke, chocolate and sugary or spicy food at least three to four hours before bedtime.
  • Ensure their bed is comfy, and the room is quiet and well-ventilated.
  • Dim the lights at night: studies show carefully controlled exposure to light can reset the circadian timing system. Keep their curtains open to ensure maximum morning sun.
  • Avoid late-night exercise, as it raises body temperature and inhibits sleep.
  • Get a routine in place: go to bed and wake up at the same time each week day, and avoid extensive sleep-ins on weekends.
  • See your doctor if things do not improve as there may be an underlying issue that’s inhibiting sleep, such as anxiety or depression.

Maybe it’s not all their/your fault

Scientists now agree that children’s body clocks change when they enter puberty. As they mature, the sleep-related hormone melatonin is secreted later at night than normal, and switches off later the following morning. This totally changes the circadian rhythms that guide their sleep-wake cycle. So, while teens may be forced into bed at 10pm, many are left twiddling their thumbs (often literally on their mobiles) until 1 or 2am, then they struggle to wake up in time for school. Most adolescents become night owls during puberty and a little bit afterwards, and then go back to “normal” in early adulthood.


Mr Terry Muldoon
Principal, St Columba Anglican School
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