correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified the College of the Holy Cross as Holy Cross University. The story has been updated.
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.
I run workshops with middle school students about learning and the brain. The week we covered sleep, they couldn’t stop talking. During our starter activity, they filled their notebooks and the whiteboard with ways sleep deprivation affects their thinking, their physical health and — most animatedly — their emotional stability. Here how they finished the sentence “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.”
Knowing all this, though, doesn’t necessarily translate to a change in behavior. 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 8 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.
As I planned my workshop lesson, I thought about something KJ Dell’Antonia, author of “How to Be a Happier Parent,” recently told me: “If you teach your kids why sleep is important and what it can do for them, they can genuinely want and learn to change.” In other words, we need to help our kids find the motivation that will help them alter their behavior.
So rather than reminding my students of the dire consequences of poor sleep habits, I tried talking about all the incredible things that happen inside your brain while you sleep. My goal was to show them that it’s worth making small changes that help you sleep a little longer and a little better — not just because you don’t want to feel grumpy in the morning, but because you want the long-term gifts that only sleep can give.
The benefits of sleep
We learn when we dream. When you dream, 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.
Sleep “cleans up” the brain. When you sleep, your brain removes information you don’t need and consolidates what you learned that day. This makes room for new learning. After all, do you really need to remember what socks you wore, the joke you heard during first period, or what you ate for breakfast? Neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin found that many of our synapses shrink at night as the brain weeds out or “forgets” information that it no longer needs. And it’s not just memories that need to be cleaned up. According to the National Institutes of Health, sleep also flushes out toxins that accumulate during the day.
Sleep improves academic performance. Sufficient sleep can lead to improved recall, faster response time and more fluid problem-solving. In a 1998 study of 3,000 high school students, researchers out of Brown University and College of the Holy Cross found that students who averaged C’s, D’s and F’s went to bed an average of 40 minutes later than students who averaged A’s and B’s. More recently, a Harvard Medical School study of college students found a strong connection between “sleep regularity” — that is, getting a consistent amount of sleep at a consistent time — and higher academic performance.
Sleep helps you stay emotionally regulated. Sleep improves our ability to manage our emotions and respond to the challenges of each day. Again, dreaming is part of this equation. According to research out of the University of California at Berkeley, when we dream, we process and make sense of emotional experiences. Sleep keeps the amygdala working properly — that’s the part of the brain that helps control our emotional responses, including fear, anger and anxiety. When your amygdala is tired, it’s harder to look at situations objectively, so little things can feel overwhelming. As one research study found, without adequate sleep, we can have an “exaggerated response to neutral stimuli.”
Sleep improves your health and athletic performance. Sleep improves your immune system. Among a long list of health benefits, it makes you less susceptible to the common cold. And for athletes, sleep improves reaction time and accuracy rates, reduces injury rates and is closely tied to achieving peak performance.
Four ways to help your child 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 certain activities in a certain order alerts the brain that sleep is on the way. Going to bed at a consistent time helps, too.
Mind the blue light and caffeine. 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 hormone 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). Also, because caffeine increases adrenaline — and because it takes at least six hours to get out of your system — it’s best to limit these drinks to the morning (if at all).
Calm your brain. Develop a set of strategies for calming the mind — from guided meditations to exercises where you focus 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 distractions consistently interrupt our focus, it takes exponentially 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.