Parent Wellbeing Blog | The Importance of Sleep

If you as a parent were offered a chemical-free, totally organic, magic potion that was proven to reduce your child’s risk of depression, anxiety, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, to improve their mood, sharpen their focus and memory and almost certainly to improve their grades at school, would you take me up on the offer? The good news is, this magic potion is freely available to you today, and it is called SLEEP! 

 

With boarding schools in the news this week for the added health benefits achieved by routine and regular bedtimes, now is a good time to review the evidence and improve our habits.

 

What is sleep and why do we need it?

Sleep is a state our bodies enter into during which brain wave activity changes and our nervous system is less reactive to external stimuli (i.e. we temporarily leave consciousness). This sleep varies through the night, cycling through four stages. The first two phases are the lightest sleep, just as we nod off and from which we can usually be easily woken. The third phase, the deep slow-wave sleep, is the really valuable and restorative stage during which our bodies are properly at rest, followed by the fourth and most well known REM sleep during which we dream. Although we cycle through these phases approximately every two hours, in a typical night we will spend more time in the restful slow-wave sleep earlier in the night when our bodies and minds are most tired, and longer in REM sleep later in the night. The sleep cycles are regulated by the body’s levels of adenosine and its own circadian rhythm, our 24 hour body clock. An increase in adenosine increases a person’s need for sleep, with the levels building up through the day.

 

It is impossible to overstate the importance of sleep. At its most basic it causes a drop in heart rate and breathing rate and increases production of growth hormones, in turn increasing hair growth and skin cell regeneration… literally, beauty sleep! It allows nerve cells to ‘rewire’, processing and retaining what has been learned through the day and regulates our immunity; studies have shown that we are more susceptible to viruses when deprived of sleep (Cohen et al, 2009: 66-67). Sleep supports the regulation of mood, appetite and emotion. Further studies have shown that during sleep the brain puts emotional experiences into context, and when deprived of sleep we are unable to produce controlled, appropriate responses (Anwar, 2007). In short it enables us to cope with life.

 

What if we don’t get enough?

A lack of sleep compromises the body’s function in many ways. Memory, focus and the ability to take on new information is impaired. Creativity is reduced and moodiness and irritability increase. Likelihood of developing depression and anxiety increases with long term lack of sleep, and erratic levels of the hormones ghrelin, leptin and cortisol mean increased appetite and consequential weight gain. As more studies are dedicated to sleep, we are seeing correlation between chronic lack of sleep and increased risk factors for conditions such as obesity, diabetes (Knutson, 2006), cardiovascular disease and even cancers. The immune system becomes compromised because adenosine regulates the immune response and at extremely high levels, adenosine becomes toxic to immune cells. Chronic sleep debt accumulates over time, so getting into good habits and stocking up on sleep now will pay dividends come exam season.

 

How much sleep should my child be getting?

For children ages 6 to 12, the NHS recommends between 9 to 12 hours of sleep each night. For younger children, more than 10 hours of sleep each night are recommended while for adults, at least 7 hours of sleep each night are necessary (see figure 1). Sleep experts from a collection of UK universities analysed almost 4000 14 year olds as a part of the Millenium Cohort Study. They found that 90% of teenagers do not get enough sleep. Let’s make sure our children at Marlborough are part of that 10% who do sleep enough.

 

With bedtimes, curfews and an internet cut off, boarders at school tend to have a reasonably healthy sleep pattern. In Gaia House we have also introduced occasional ‘early nights’; the whole boarding house checks in early, surrenders their electronic devices and bedtimes move an hour earlier for everyone with lights in key areas like common rooms going off. Yes, we sweeten the deal with hot chocolate but no one complains about the opportunity to sleep earlier and the feedback the next day is always positive. 

 

We are so aware of the importance of a healthy balanced diet and including exercise in the daily routine, yet as parents we so often sabotage our good work by finding our children do not have sufficient sleep to actually benefit from the rest of our lifestyle. So what can we do to improve things?

 

Tips to improve your child’s sleep

  • Be realistic about timings and when they have to be up in the morning. Start to say no to those extra commitments. In the Pre-Prep, children should be switching off their lights to go to sleep by 8pm, moving to no later than 11pm at the top end of the Senior School.
  • Having a wind-down routine with a regular bedtime is key. Whether your children are just starting in nursery, or if they are half way through their IB, it helps to have a routine during which they relax and signal to their brains that sleep is approaching. This can be a wonderful time to chat about the day and read together.
  • Taking a warm bath or shower has been shown to help, particularly when coupled with a cool environment in their bedroom (18-20℃) which enables the core body temperature to drop slightly and encourages the really replenishing deep slow-wave sleep.
  • Sleepwear can also make a difference to comfort, wearing cotton pyjamas rather than synthetic materials or regular clothing to sleep.
  • Black out curtains or blinds reduce light pollution interrupting our sleep.
  • Electronics, whether phones, ipads or games, should be avoided in that last hour before sleep, and ideally not kept in the child’s bedroom. 
  • Get your kids into these good habits now! The teenage years are when many habits are set for life. Our boarders in Gaia are aged 15-18, and it is our responsibility to help them be ready to manage this on their own once they leave the home or school environment and have to manage on their own at university or beyond. Building up routines and healthy sleep habits now will help them appreciate in the future what is responsible, self care, and what is detrimental to their health. 
  • As hard as it can be, try and model this behaviour yourselves! 

 

Mrs Rebecca Jarrett  | Housemistress of Gaia House and Teacher of Biology

 

Works Cited

Anwar, Yasmin. “Sleep loss linked to psychiatric disorders.” UC Berkeley News, no. 22 Oct, 2007.

Cohen, S., et al. “Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold.” International Archives of Internal Medicine, vol. 169(1), no. Jan 12, 2009, pp. 62-67.

Klein, Alice. “Boarding School Rules help Teenagers to get more sleep.” New Scientist, no. 3415, 2022.

Knutson, KL. “Role of Sleep Duration and Quality in the Risk and Severity of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus.” Archives of Internal Medicine, vol. 166(16):1768, no. Sep 18, 2006.

NBC News, and Sarah DiGiulio. “What happens to your body and brain while you sleep.”

Rasch, B., and J. Born. “About sleep’s role in memory.” Physiology Review, vol. 93(2), no. Apr, 2013, pp. 681-766.

 

Hot chocolate and an early night in Gaia

Figure 1: Sleep requirements by age

 

 

 

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