As parents, we tend to spend a lot of energy and time on sleep. Whether it’s trying to ensure our children establish sleep routines and take naps when they should, or trying to fit in our own sleep, too. Sleep can be a mysterious and frustrating aspect of our lives. I’ll admit, it has become an obsession of mine at times during this parenting journey! To help us all learn more about sleep, Dr. Rebecca Spencer, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, delivered a fascinating talk on Tuesday evening as part of the Bement Parent Workshop Series. And for those of you reading this before our spring break, you’re just in time to complete the assignment Dr. Spencer recommended: a two-week vacation is the perfect time to learn about your optimal sleep patterns and those of your children. In case you weren’t able to join us for this workshop, here are some interesting facts and takeaways:
Why do we sleep? For the most part, it's because sleep nourishes the mind. You might think that the brain shuts down during sleep, but in fact, your brain is very active when you are sleeping.
During stage one of sleep every night, your brain reviews all of the activity of your day and puts it on repeat. By doing this, your brain experiences great memory enhancement. This is what Dr. Spencer and her team work on in their lab, conducting scientific research on how the brain commits information to memory during sleep.
The specific role of the second stage of sleep is for motor learning, learning movement patterns and sequences, and athletic performance. There is evidence that the longer you sleep, the more stage two sleep you get. Dr. Spencer shared a story about the Olympic gold medalist figure skater, Sarah Hughes. A sleep expert advised her parents that they could help her progress by skipping her morning practices. This way, she could get more stage two sleep which has been scientifically linked to athletic performance.
Stage three of sleep is when REM happens, and this is also when you might have a strange dream. One theory is that strange dreams happen because your brain is processing a memory, but isn’t yet sure where to file it away. As a result, you reactivate memories that are related to it, that might have happened at a very different time in your life but that have something in common that cause both memories to come up in your brain at the same time.
All of this happens in all sleeping brains. But what differs across age groups is the time needed for sleep. The theory is for younger people, more sleep is needed because there is so much more to process, learn, and remember, than in later years of life.
So why do we sleep when we do? There are two factors that contribute to this. It is known that circadian rhythms play a large role in determining sleep patterns. Additionally, homeostatic sleep pressure is another factor determining when you feel sleepy. The longer it has been since you’ve slept, the more homeostatic sleep pressure your body builds, therefore making you feel tired and ready for sleep. On nights when you stay up late you accumulate sleep pressure, and then if you wake up at your regular early time, your brain didn’t have time to fully release the sleep pressure. Then, as your day begins you are loaded with sleep pressure at the beginning of the day, so you will likely feel the need to sleep frequently during that day because of your increased level of sleep pressure.
How can you tell what your child’s “free sleep schedule” is? Go on a two-week vacation without too many outside influences. What do they settle into? If your child is old enough, ask them if they could choose their bedtimes or wake times, when would they be? They are usually accurate. Children ages 10-14 usually need between 8-11 hours of sleep a night.
The biggest myth for adults is that you should sleep 7-8 hours a night. This is not based on any scientific evidence, but rather it is the average hours a night that people sleep. Scientifically, there is no way to measure how much sleep a person needs. There are genes for short sleep and genes for long sleep, but there is no magic number, as it is an individual number. Again, Dr. Spencer recommends going on a two-week vacation and at the end of the time, pay attention to how long you are sleeping each night.
Should you nap? Dr. Spencer suggests napping is okay if you have a need to release sleep pressure, but if you “luxuriously” nap, you may have a hard time going to sleep at night.
How about that teenager in your house who wants to stay up late or sleep for 12 hours? On average, the circadian rhythms of teens (7th grade and older) happens much later in the day than in children and adults. So teenagers’ circadian clocks might not want to go to bed until midnight or 1:00 a.m., which is called “phase delay.” They also have a faster accumulation of sleep pressure than adults do because they are in adolescence. Additionally, they have a slower dissipation of sleep pressure while they sleep. For these reasons, adolescents have greater sleep needs than adults. We may begin to see these transitions in the sleep patterns and circadian rhythms of girls at around 10 years old, and boys closer to 13.
On the other hand, when we go to bed early, in advance of our circadian clock (and outside of our circadian sleep pressure), we may experience “fragmented sleep”. This can cause the desire to “binge-sleep” on weekends to make up for the shortened sleep during the weekdays. But this is how adolescent sleep schedules get thrown off and become inconsistent. Ultimately, it is better for adolescents to get 7 hours of quality sleep rather than 8-9 hours of fragmented sleep.
Below are some other interesting facts we heard at the workshop, based on scientific evidence:
- Sleep is important to immune function. People are more likely to fight germs if they’ve slept well.
- If you have trouble sleeping, the answer does not necessarily need to be pharmacological. Pharmaceutical treatments are just supposed to help break bad sleep habits, and then be replaced by good sleep hygiene.
- Sleeping consistently night after night is just as important as how long you sleep the night before an important event or test. You should try to go to bed and wake up plus or minus one hour within the same timeframe each day.
- Melatonin is a hormone in your body that plays a role in sleep. Darkness brings out melatonin, so dim light or a dark room brings out your melatonin and this will help you get sleepy. Regulating your own melatonin is one trick to trying to sleep when you want to sleep. To regulate melatonin, you utilize light (most people before bed have light right in their faces, looking at screens or having direct light shining at your eyes). At least a half-hour before bedtime, limit light so melatonin levels can increase and help you fall asleep.
- In a recent Bement student survey, 74% of students (4th -8th grade) reported using tech devices within an hour before bedtime.
- Television - kids are more apt to be watching more adult-like content before bedtime. In western Massachusetts, 35% of children ages 3-5 years old have TVs in their bedrooms.
- TVs in children's bedrooms are indicative of poor sleep (one reason is that children may be watching when adults aren’t aware).
- 40% of Bement students reported watching TV within an hour before bedtime. Not only is the light an issue, but the content can be stimulating to your brain which can make it difficult to fall asleep.
- Content viewed on smartphones within an hour before bed may also be problematic; social engagements late in the day can cause difficulties.
- Avoid caffeine in the afternoon, be a careful consumer
- Create a good sleep environment:
- 64 degrees Fahrenheit or less is recommended, heat can be a problem
- Quiet, or white noise sources are helpful
- 55% of Bement students reported they worry about things at night and this impacts their ability to fall asleep easily. Sometimes these worries are irrational and wouldn’t be the same kind of worries as they might have in the middle of the day, so it can be helpful for parents to talk to their children before bed to dispel their worries.
- If children are thirsty at night, it's ok to have a glass of water by their bed.
- Ruminating on thoughts can also keep us awake. Find relaxation techniques that work. Counting sheep works because it draws your thoughts away from what you are ruminating on. Find something to target your thoughts on.
- Among 10-12-year-olds, growing pains can be more prevalent at night and this discomfort can keep kids awake.
- If a child does have insomnia, it's okay to keep them up late for a few nights to break the spell so they will end up sleeping through that time and they will have enough sleep pressure so they can fall asleep.
- Through the lymphatic system, cerebral spinal fluid washes over the brain while you are sleeping and flushes/removes the neurotoxic waste (this could be critical to various different forms of disease and over time we may learn there could be a link between neurodegenerative diseases and sleep).
- It seems that children who have ADHD or ADHD-like symptoms have greater sleep needs. This is because sleep improves inhibitory control. So children with ADHD are getting normal amounts of sleep, but they might have greater sleep need in order to get the same functions as children without ADHD.
- If all else fails, don’t panic, this can create anti-sleep associations. Over worrying that kids aren’t getting enough sleep can go too far so help them to realize it will all be okay.
Now I am feeling sleep pressure and thanks to Dr. Spencer, I know to darken the room, shut off my device, and begin counting sheep. Sweet dreams and sleep well!
· Netflix series “Babies” https://www.netflix.com/title/80117833
· PBS Nova episode: “Mysteries of Sleep” https://www.pbs.org/video/mysteries-of-sleep-yf3uf4/
· Article: 'Waves' of fluid clear the brain of toxins during sleep, say researchers https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/toxins-sleep
· Article: Why Do We Need to Sleep? https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/01/the-mystery-of-sleep-pressure/549473/