Having Trouble Sleeping?  Read this..

How many hours of sleep did you get last night?  How much sleep we need exactly is still being debated by experts, and the amount probably varies quite a bit between people. However, almost all sleep experts recommend that teenagers need between 7.5 and 9 hours of sleep each night.

But the best guide as to whether you are getting enough sleep is sleepiness.  If you are sleepy in the morning, have trouble waking up and feel sleepy during the day, this means you are not getting enough sleep.

Does this really matter?  Unfortunately it does. Teenagers who are sleep deprived are more likely to:

  • Feel depressed and anxious, and feel irritable and angry
  • Have trouble remembering information for tests, exams and organising themselves
  • Have trouble motivating themselves to do difficult tasks
  • Have difficulty understanding ideas and concepts at school
  • Have slower reaction times (and therefore, more likely to be in a car accident if driving)
  • Are weaker and slower in sporting and athletic activity
  • Are more likely to get minor illnesses, and take longer to recover from these illnesses.     
  • Can start to have slurred speech and muscle tremors, and high blood pressure   

Let’s have a look at why you might not be getting enough sleep.  First, you may simply not want to go to bed any earlier, because of the things you want to do at night, or the things you have to get done. (“But I’m not tired. Everyone stays up until midnight in my class. I’ve got too much to do. I study best late at night”).   

If this is the case for you, I’m hoping that by reading through and thinking about the consequences of sleep deprivation, you might be prepared to make some small changes. Could you commit to getting to bed just 30 minutes earlier each night for 7 nights. Just as an experiment? You will then be able to see whether this extra sleep makes a positive difference in your life. You can then make a decision after that, with a better understanding of what it is like to get enough sleep.

However, some teenagers would really like to get more sleep, but just can’t get to sleep at night. Unfortunately, sleeping problems are not unusual in teenagers. If this is true for you, it might be that an unhelpful cycle is set up for you:  you can't get to sleep until late, then are very sleepy the next day and so have a nap in the afternoon - which then affects your ability to get to sleep that night.  The cycle continues.

If you can’t get to sleep, here are some ideas which will help. Unfortunately, some of these things take some sacrifice to do.But they do work. Even if you can make these changes strictly for 2 weeks, and then review how you are going after that, you might find you have got into a better cycle and can ease up later.

Here are the steps to follow.

  1. Avoid caffeine at least four hours before bed,  including cokes, energy drinks and coffees.
  2. Avoid hot baths or showers before bed. 
  3. Avoid exercise one hour before bed, 
  4. But increase your exercise during the day so that you are physically active; playing sport, going to the gym and/or walking nearly every day. 
  5. Avoiding the internet/mobile phone screens for 30 mins before bed.  These devices emit light which our brain interprets as it being day.  It is very difficult to become sleepy immediately after looking at a screen.
  6. Avoiding studying or using computers on your bed - this can signal to the brain that the bed is a "wake zone", which can make it harder to get to sleep on the bed at other times.
  7. First thing in the morning, expose yourself to as much bright light as possible – preferably sun light, or bright fluorescent light.  This "resets" the body clock and tells the brain it is day time, and the sooner you can do this in the morning, the sooner your brain will be ready to sleep at night.
  8. For the same reason, first thing in the morning, try to be as active as possible and also eat breakfast. Again this resets the body clock and will help you get to sleep in the night time.  

Now, here are the hard ones.

h) Do not take a nap during the day.  This includes even 10 minutes after school.  If you are having trouble with getting to sleep at night, any small amounts of sleep at all during the day can interfere with our ability to get to sleep at night.  

And the even harder one…

i) Get up at approximately the same time every morning, 7 days a week, regardless of how much sleep you got the night before. This will help teens acquire a consistent sleep rhythm.   I know this means not sleeping in on the weekend, which probably sounds like death on a stick right now.  But if you can do this (again, remember just for a couple of weeks to start with) you can overcome your problems sleeping at night, and it won’t be so hard to get up in the morning.  If you cant cope with getting up at the exact same time on the weekend – at least try to get up within 1-2 hours of your normal wake time during the week.

If you take all of these steps, eventually you should be able to overcome your sleeping problems.  It might take a couple of weeks.  In the meantime, while you are waiting – do not lie in bed for hours waiting to get to sleep.  If you are not asleep within 30 minutes of being in bed, get up again and do something relaxing.  Don’t turn the computer or your phone on – the light will keep you up – but read quietly in a relaxing spot other than bed.  Then go back to bed again a little later when you are sleepy again.  Your parents might be worried about this if you are out of bed half the night, but provided you don’t take any naps the next day, get up early and follow all of the other guidelines, it shouldn’t be long till you are sleeping better hours.

If you still have trouble, make an appointment with your GP, school counsellor or a psychologist to talk this over.  Good luck.