Sleep Patterns

Humans establish patterns of sleep, a necessary part of life, with changes occurring from foetal to adult life stages.  During periods of rapid growth and development, such as infancy and adolescence, longer periods of sleep are required in order for physical growth and cognitive maturation to occur.  Giulio Tononi, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, emphasises the link between sufficient sleep and the capacity to learn, stating: “Sleep is the price we pay for learning.”

Factors such as increased exposure to artificial light and use of technology devices disrupt natural circadian rhythms, while significant changes in activity and eating habits during adolescence can have a detrimental impact upon sleeping patterns.  Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkley, Matthew Walker, highlights the influence of recent changes upon sleep patterns:  “Humans are not sleeping the way nature intended. The number of sleep bouts, the duration of sleep, and when sleep occurs has all been comprehensively distorted by modernity.”

Adolescence is a particularly vulnerable time. Bedtime autonomy tends to increase as students become older and academic workload increases.  Despite healthy sleep requirements remaining static at approximately 9¼ hours per night during adolescence, longitudinal studies have shown that sleep on school nights tends to decrease 1½  to 2 hours across the period of adolescence.  Heightened stress levels interfere with memory function and trigger sleep disturbance, resulting in sleep deprivation. Focus and learning is impaired by sleep deficit and students become further stressed by this downwards spiral. Inadequate sleep negatively effects mood regulation, culminating in what Dr Chris Seton, an Australian paediatric and adolescent sleep physician, refers to as a ‘perfect storm.’

A natural adjustment in the timing of the release of the biochemical melatonin results in a shift in sleep patterns and delays the onset of sleepiness during adolescence. Students performing tasks late at night are not optimally productive as brains go into shut-down mode as the late night ‘tipping point’ impacts on the quality of academic production. Students who can’t get to sleep at night still need to get up early the next morning, experience difficulties getting ready in the morning and appear to be ‘jet-lagged’ with their brain operating at restricted capacity. Restricted sleep does not allow the brain to adequately learn by consolidating learning that may (if not too tired) take place during the day. It is a vicious and unproductive cycle.

Parents who established patterns of hygiene in young children need to focus upon establishing patterns of sleep hygiene during adolescence.  Discussions about the importance of sleep and its role in learning are an important starting point in sleep education.  Establishment of positive, relaxing, pre-sleep routines can gradually retrain and prepare the brain for sleep. Restrictions on the timing and duration of the use of digital devices, especially those that emanate blue light, can be extremely helpful in establishing healthy patterns of sleep.   Encouraging students to develop positive time management strategies so they are able to complete assignments and begin exam preparation well ahead of the due date means that optimal performance will not be restricted by constant sleep deprivation.

© Michele Juratowitch 
michele@clearingskies.com.au