A Good Night’s Sleep

Mrs Violet Ross, Head of Woolcock House

 Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast. 

Term III is a busy term for both academic and co-curricular activities, a term many consider to be the most important for our Year 12 students. It therefore seems pertinent to focus on a vital part of our daily lives that is essential if we are to perform at our best – sleep. Despite its biological and physical necessity, sleep is often low on our list of priorities. We all know that eating nutritious food and exercising regularly is essential for the maintenance of good health, but bedtime too often gets ignored. Sleep researchers insist that a good night’s sleep is crucially important, while the anecdotal information we gather from the girls here at school suggests that this is a point worth reiterating.

Sleep is particularly important for learning, memory and the regulation of behaviour and emotions, and particularly so for adolescents (Cain & Gradisar, 2010, p.735). During sleep our body repairs and recovers from the damage of the day. According to Professor Drew Dawson, Director of the Centre for Sleep Research at the University of South Australia, the first four hours of sleep is when physical recovery primarily occurs, while the subsequent four hours of sleep is devoted to mental recovery (Collins, 2011). The arithmetic is straightforward – if we skimp on the recovery time afforded by sleep, our physical and mental performance will be compromised.  It is all too often the case that, with such a high number of competing activities in modern life, we  too often choose other activities over sleep, to our own detriment.

If we are to improve our sleeping habits, it is important to understand  the mechanics of the sleep process. When it gets dark at night, melatonin (the hormone that makes  us sleepy) is secreted by the pineal gland in the brain to help induce sleep. In the morning when the sunlight hits our eyes, the signal is given to stop releasing melatonin, which  produces alertness. When we disrupt light signals, our sleep-wake cycle (what most of us call our ‘body clock’) can fall out of sync (Collins, 2011). Exposure to bright lights in the evening or to too little light during the day can disrupt normal melatonin cycles. Jet lag, shift work, and poor vision can disrupt these cycles and while the girls may not be experiencing these circumstances, there are many situations in their school, home, and social lives which produce very similar effects on their sleep.

The total sleep duration of children and adolescents is decreasing (Cain & Gradisar, 2010, p.735). A study published in Pediatrics found that only 21 per cent of teens get the recommended amount of sleep (Lewis, 2011, p.8). Early school starts, academic pressure, stress, anxiety, social pursuits—and particularly the use of technology— all interrupt sleep or delay bedtime and lead to irregular sleep patterns (Calamaro, Mason & Ratcliffe, 2009, p.1005). Teenagers have a further biological challenge to overcome.  Not only do they need more sleep than adults, about nine hours per night, but they also experience a sleep phase delay (Collins, producer, 2011). That is, the production of melatonin in teenagers is delayed and a smaller amount is secreted. This results in teenagers at 10pm feeling like it is only 8pm; a perception which makes it very unlikely that they will want to go to bed (Collins, producer, 2011). Teens are chemically-programmed night owls.

This biological phenomenon is exacerbated by technology use. Increasingly, adolescents are extending the aforementioned sleep phase delay through the use of computers and technology – Facebook and other forms of social media, texting, talking on the phone, television, and gaming – and staying up longer (Collins, producer, 2011). An article in the Herald Sun this week reported that a high proportion of teenage girls (half of those surveyed), desperate to keep in touch with their friends and the latest gossip, sleep with their phones under their pillows switched to vibrate so that they wake up when they receive messages (Doherty, 2001). While these technology-induced sleep interruptions and later bedtimes are concerning in themselves, they are compounded by research findings which show that the use of electronic media also has a negative impact on sleep. The bright light exposure from computer and television screens also influences the natural cycle of melatonin production (Cain & Gradisar, 2010, p.741).

Yet another factor contributing to these sleep difficulties is the increased consumption of caffeinated drinks. “Human sleep has shown in numerous studies to be sensitive to the effects of caffeine. An evening ingestion of caffeine has shown to lengthen sleep latency, decrease sleep efficiency, and decrease sleep duration” (Calamaro, Mason & Ratcliffe, 2009, p.1009). Tea and coffee notwithstanding, the newer, high-caffeine energy drinks that have found a loyal market in adolescents have an even greater impact on sleep duration. Interestingly, studies reveal that adolescents who multitask the most, using a variety of media devices, also consume the highest amounts of caffeine, thereby redoubling the disruption to their sleep patterns.  The deleterious effects on these adolescents’ studies are significant, as they are at a 70 per cent greater risk of falling asleep at school as well as a 20 per cent risk of increased difficulty falling asleep on school nights (Calamaro, Mason & Ratcliffe, 2009, p.1009). Clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller is concerned about the vicious cycle teens are finding themselves in: “They use energy drinks to be more alert in the morning but that causes other issues and they are often more grumpy” (Fuller as cited in Doherty, 2011). He is particularly concerned that adolescents are not getting the quality sleep they need to help them learn and guard against problems such as depression (Doherty, 2011).

What can we do, then, to ensure that our teenagers get enough sleep? Researchers have found that, paradoxically, while most sleep study participants knew how much sleep they should be getting, some of the strategies they were using to try to get to sleep were actually more likely to cause stimulation than relaxation.  Nearly half reported watching TV to help them get to sleep. Others exercised before bed, also resulting in stimulation (Noland, Price, Drake & Telljohann, 2009, p.229). Experts therefore recommend that parents and adolescents be educated regarding the importance of adequate sleep, the components of good sleep hygiene, and strategies such as time management to facilitate healthy sleep behaviours (Noland et al., 2009, p.230). Some key strategies include:                                           

  • While adults need seven to eight hours of good sleep per night, for teenagers the figure is at least nine and optimally they should be in bed by ten o’clock. Bedtimes of eleven thirty or later put normal sleep phases out of sync with the physical world (Collins, 2011).
  • Maintaining a regular body clock is vital. People who go to bed and rise at the same time each day, including the weekend, have higher quality of sleep and are less likely to report sleep deprivation (Noland et al., 2009, p.229). Adolescents often suffer under the misapprehension that they can make up for lost sleep during the week by sleeping more on the weekends or by napping. Dramatic changes in the sleep cycle and an inadequate number of hours of sleep can have detrimental effects on adolescents, and it can take several days or longer for one’s sleep schedule to become regulated again (Noland et al., 2009, p.229, 230).
  • To achieve good sleep hygiene, technology should be kept out of bedrooms or at least switched off early (Cain & Gradisar, 2010, p.736). Professor Ian Hickie, Executive Director of the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney recommends that physical activity should be avoided in the evening so that body temperature and cortisol production can start to decrease. As darkness descends, lights should go down and media devices turned off to allow melatonin to surge. “You will then go to sleep much more deeply, go into deeper phases of sleep and you’ll wake up feeling much more refreshed” (Collins, producer, 2011). Caffeinated drinks should not be consumed in the late afternoon or evening. Professor Hickie also advises waking around the time the sun rises to have the maximum sunlight exposure earlier in the morning to send the signal to the pineal gland to turn the melatonin off. Being up and physically active at this time also drives the body temperature and cortisol up and melatonin down. These are all signals to tell your body that this is the start of the twenty-four hour cycle (Collins, producer, 2011).

So, if your daughter is irritable, lacking in motivation, not performing to her potential, experiencing a drop in grades, exhibiting emotional or behavioural problems, having  relationship difficulties and you are considering having her tested because she can’t seem to pay attention,  or  sit still – do not despair! The answer may simply be that she needs to get a regular good night’s sleep.


Cain, N., Gradisar, M.  (2010) Electronic media use and sleep in school-aged children and adolescents: a review. Sleep Medicine, 11, 735-742.

Calamaro, C. J., Mason, T. B. A., Ratcliffe, S. J. (2009) Adolescents living the 24/7 Lifestyle: Effects of Caffeine and Technology on Sleep Deprivation and Daytime Functioning. Pediatrics, 123, 1004-1010.

Collins, A. (Producer). (2011, July 21). Staying Up Late [Television Broadcast]. In Catalyst. Sydney, NSW: ABC Television

Doherty, E. “Pillow Talk Wearing Phone-obsessed Teens out.” Herald Sun. 15 Aug. 2011. Web. 16 Aug. 2011. http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/more-news/pillow-talk-wearing-phone-obsessed-teens-out/story-fn7x8me2-1226115515762.

Lewis, K. C. (2011). Are you a tired teen?  Listen, 64, 8.

Noland, H., Price, J. H., Drake, J., Telljohann, S. K. (2009) Adolescents’ Sleep Behaviors and Perceptions of Sleep.  Journal of School Health 79, 224-230.

Shakespeare, W. The Tragedy of Macbeth with Related Readings.  Albany: ITP International Thomson, 1997. 39. Print.

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