In Adolescence, Sleep As Important As School

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Feb 9, 2015

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As children across India battle academic and parental pressure navigating an intensely competitive school system, a good night’s rest can be rare. Sri Ram*, 15, who lives in Chennai, doesn’t remember a single night in the past year when he went to bed earlier than midnight. Sometimes, depending on his homework and after-school tuition sessions, he stayed up even later.

“He’s a hard-working boy,” says his mother, Shenbam. “He never sleeps without doing his homework. And there’s always so much of that!”

Sri Ram rises at 6 a.m., attends a mathematics tuition near his home, and is in school by 9 a.m. When he returns in the evening at 5 p.m., he has time for a quick bite before tuitions in two more subjects from 6 to 8 p.m. Then he eats dinner, after which he does homework and prepares for tests the next day.

For schoolchildren in India, especially those in standards 9-12, 18-hour work days like this are commonplace. Staying up to study into the wee hours of the morning is not only acceptable, but a welcome sign that a child is doing well academically. Parents seldom insist on earlier hours, but from a health standpoint—they should.

SLEEP DEPRIVATION IS HARD ON THE BODY

“Little do parents understand the impact that a lack of sleep can have on adolescents,” says Dr. Himanshu Garg, Director of Sleep Cure Solutions Pulmonology and Sleep Centre in Gurgaon, Haryana. “Not only will they (adolescents) lack the energy to navigate through a demanding school day, but chronic sleeplessness can create mood swings, affect their temperament, and even have an adverse impact on their long-term health.”

    Ten hours of sleep for teens and preteens is vital and should not be compromised.”

Dr. Garg says sleep deprivation can also take a toll psychologically, and heighten the risk of depression in teen years.

“Ten hours of sleep for teens and preteens is vital and should not be compromised,” he says.

Lack of sleep is also linked to the rising epidemic of obesity among adolescents. Children tend to be sluggish, both physically and mentally, after a sleepless night, which makes them less likely to be active during the day, a 2002 study found. The study, conducted by the University of Texas Health Science Center in the U.S., established that sleep-deprived children are 3% less active during the day for every hour that their sleep is disturbed or disrupted at night. This may seem like a small decrease, but when added up over the course of many nights, it puts such kids at risk for obesity. The study established that both quantity – the number of hours slept – and quality – of sleep were both important factors in preventing childhood obesity.

But the effects don’t end there; insufficient sleep in adolescence, Dr. Garg adds, can put one at greater risk of hypertension and Type 2 diabetes later in life.

SLEEP DEPRIVATION MUDDLES THE MIND

Aside from the health benefits, a proper night’s sleep for adolescents is even more integral to high academic achievement than extra tuitions. A recent article in the journal Science cites research proving a good night’s rest will actually improve memory and aid in better recall of facts. Researchers in China and the U.S. used advanced microscopy to witness new connections between brain cells that form during sleep: Neurons in the brain which were activated when an awake subject studied were re-activated during deep sleep, reinforcing the knowledge imbibed during daylight.

But what does this mean in real life? Most learning in adolescence is through memorization of facts and critical analysis. During  memorization and analysis, the brain forms new connections to retain and understand information—but these connections are easily broken, and the information quickly forgotten. Proper sleep, however, strengthens the connections, making the information stick.

Indeed, too little sleep can have the exact opposite effect. Another recent study by U.S. academics showed that chronic sleep deprivation actually leads to what researchers call a “false memory,” that is, poor and unreliable memories without specific recall of details, facts, and events.

GOOD SLEEP HABITS

Today, in many households across the world, books have been replaced by digital devices. It may be convenient to use an iPad to read to your toddler at bedtime, or for your adolescent child to unwind with a tablet in hand, but these digital devices are the bane of good sleep. The bright light can reduce your body’s levels of melatonin, a hormone experts believe crucial for a good night’s rest. The light also has the effect of making you more alert and interfering with your sleep cycle.

“Digital devices disrupt the body’s circadian rhythms,” says Dr. Garg. “Rid the bedroom of any kind of monitors. Even light from TV, mobiles, clock radios, smartphones, handheld devices and other gadgets can greatly disrupt sleep.”

Creating the right bedtime rituals can also help in establishing regular, good sleep habits. In addition to avoiding digital devices at bedtime, parents can try these good nighttime practices to help kids sleep better:

  • Ensure you and your family dine at least two hours before bed
  • Avoid old arguments or other topics that will be likely agitate your child
  • Encourage your child to meditate for a few minutes before bed
  • Play soothing music at bedtime, to ease any tension about exams or trouble sleeping
  • Dim the lights and make sure the room is cool, comfortable, and mosquito-free
  • Consider early morning yoga sessions, which have been known to aid restful sleep

“Parents must make sleep a priority,” says Dr. Garg. “It is as important as food and medicine for a growing child.”

*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of a minor.

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Written By Kamala Thiagarajan

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the International New York Times, The Reader’s Digest (Indian edition), National Geographic Traveller, American Health & Fitness, Firstpost.com and more. She has written articles on the subjects of health, fitness, gender issues, travel and lifestyle for a global audience and has been published in newspapers and magazines in over ten countries. Visit her virtual home at kamala-thiagarajan.com or follow her @Kamal_t

See all articles by Kamala
  1. Rasana Atreya

    I agree completely, Kamala. Great article! In fact, we’ve agreed as a family that next year will be a no Olympaids/Math-Bee etc year because though the kids do well, at what cost to themselves? We want them to have the free time to do nothing at all

    • Kamala Thiagarajan

      I think that’s wonderful Rasana. I wish more people would feel that way. Kids need to use these years productively, but they need time to nurture themselves too. Pursue a hobby or two. Or just plain get enough sleep! And thanks for the feedback!

  2. poonkodi

    My kid wants to give up any extra hobby class after a term ( all the classes are what she picked) . I let her take off a couple of months and then got her into the class again after checking with her and she wanting to go back. Now after a term she wants to drop out again. In trying not to be a pushy mum, I am not teaching the kid the go getter attitude

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