Good sleeping habits matter for girls
Health experts believe that a lack of sleep, or poor quality sleep, is becoming a major health issue. Girls, in particular, need to be getting a good night's sleep.
This month, we've interviewed sleep expert Nikki Cameron of The Sleep Counsellor to get some practical advice on how to help your teen or pre-teen daughter get the sleep that will support her health, and help her day. We've also got some fun things for girls to try.
1. Why is sleep so important?
Sleep makes us feel good! It keeps us alert, helps with creativity and flexible thinking, improves concentration, memory, reflexes and critical thinking skills. Equally importantly, the body is also busy when we’re sleeping and resting – hormones that help us grow and repair tissue are produced, and the better we sleep the stronger our immune system is. Our organs keep working, going through a healing and regenerative process. We burn between 400 and 900 calories in an eight-hour sleep.
2. Why is broken sleep, or a lack of sleep, a growing problem?
If we don’t sleep we seriously affect our ability to learn. The latest research from the USA indicates that 12-18 year olds with a bed time after midnight had a 71% risk of depression. Lack of sleep or broken sleep patterns have been linked to an increased chance of obesity. Students with lower grades tend to have significantly less sleep than students who sleep better – a difference of only 40 minutes can improve their chance of getting A grades.
Poor sleep is a growing problem because teenagers today have more distractions in their lives – not just the obvious: TV, mobile phones, computers – but they are also under more pressure than ever before – from school and exams, to distress in the family home, such as parents who may be divorcing. Teenagers are more likely to be working outside school; they have more complex friendships, and social lives that may involve drugs or alcohol (both of which seriously affect their sleep); and other issues may increase the pressures on them, such as bullying.
3. What contributes to our sleeping patterns?
Our bodies are incredibly sophisticated and work very well. Our natural body clock, roughly lasting 24 hours, uses hormones such as melatonin to help prepare us for sleep as it gets darker in the evening. As our lives have become more complex and we do less exercise, spend more time sitting in front of screens and sit up later watching TV or making late-night phone calls, we can push the day further into night. Our natural systems then get disrupted.
However, unless there is a physical condition that is affecting your sleep, anyone can learn how to sleep well – and it’s all about regular patterns: going to bed at the same time every night.
There doesn’t seem to be evidence to suggest that there is a lot of difference between girls and boys and their physical relationship to lack of sleep, but there is evidence to suggest that girls may be more prone to depression and anxiety if they have less sleep.
4. Is there a difference in how much sleep pre-teens and teenagers need?
We need different amounts of sleep according to our age:
- babies sleep the most
- children aged 5-12 can need between 9-11 hours
- teenagers need just over 9 hours
- adults need less.
5. Does puberty have an effect on sleep?
Puberty affects everything! Recent research suggests that young people going through puberty start to naturally sleep later. Many states in the USA are now shifting the school day to start later because students learn better later in the day. There is some evidence to suggest that teenagers' circadian clock (their body clock) shifts into a later phase during puberty.
Puberty is all about changes to the body. Hormones are produced to help to deal with those changes and the emotional challenges that result. If these are combined with sleep deprivation then teens and pre-teens will experience difficulties in controlling their temper; they may have more mood swings; be more likely to have accidents when driving; and be vulnerable to anxiety or depression. They will certainly deal with stress less well.
Good sleeping habits
6. What is meant by "quantity" and "quality" of sleep, and routines?
Good quality sleep will leave you feeling rested, relaxed and refreshed. If you are regularly disturbed during the night or you wake up and your bed clothes are all over the place and twisted around you, or you still feel tired in the morning or sleepy in the afternoon, then you are not getting good quality sleep.
In terms of quantity, teenagers need a little over nine hours' sleep every night. They should not be making a habit of trying to catch up at the weekends because this starts to build up a sleep ‘debt’, and they will never be able to catch up.
The best way to get good sleep is to develop a routine around going to bed. A routine helps to prepare you and your body to rest effectively. They key is to go to bed at roughly the same time every night (give or take 15-30 minutes) and get up at the same in the morning. Don’t vary it at weekends. Those long weekend lie-ins into the afternoon will break your body’s routine.
Keep to the same time and same hours every night and you’ll feel great.
7. What if you just can't get to sleep?
It can be frustrating lying in bed and not being able to sleep. If you're not falling asleep, don't lie for more than 15 minutes or so – get up, do something, read a little, but don't lie in bed constantly watching the clock and fretting that you're not sleeping.
8. Is it okay to nap during the day?
Not on a regular basis. If you need to nap most days it means you’re not getting enough quality sleep.
However, a nap is a good idea if you’ve had a late night and only managed a few hours sleep. Take a 20 minute nap in the afternoon and then get to bed at your usual time and you’ll probably sleep through to your waking-up time.
The effect of poor sleeping habits
9. How does a lack of sleep affect teens and pre-teens?
There’s no major difference between boys and girls in their sleep needs. However, a significant issue that results from lack of sleep is that more girls than boys are more likely to suffer depression and suicidal thoughts. For both, puberty means changes in their bodies, and regular sleep will always help.
A lack of sleep at this stage can lead to serious health issues – emotional as well as physical. If we don’t sleep well our bodies will produce more cortisol (the stress hormone). When cortisol is produced at the right time, it helps us to deal with periods of stress, but our body produces more cortisol if we don’t sleep well and that can keep our blood pressure raised and reduce the production of immune cells.
A lack of sleep in teenagers has been linked to increased levels of anxiety, inane or dangerous behaviour such as dangerous driving, or increased levels of risk taking. They may become more angry and aggressive, or have less ability to concentrate and learn.
Lack of sleep is also linked to problems with memory.
When a lack of sleep is linked to depression, teenagers may start to feel less motivated. This becomes a downward spiral, ending up with lower grades at school because they're not able to get themselves going or want to be involved in school life.
10. What are some of the warning signs that parents need to watch out for?
If your teenager regularly:
- sleeps through the day
- oversleeps in the morning
- falls behind in school work
- falls asleep in the car or while watching TV
- lacks motivation or is generally sluggish
- keeps forgetting things
- gains weight
- feels run down all the time
- becomes increasingly depressed
- often becomes angry
- starts to drink a lot of high-caffeine drinks such as Red Bull
... all of these are indicators of poor sleep.
Advice for parents
11. Can you explain what a "good sleeping environment" is?
Avoid as many distractions as possible in the bedroom – the computer, TV and mobile phone are likely to stop them going to sleep.
It is understandably difficult to get teenagers to agree not to have these things in their own rooms. Perhaps parents and teenagers could negotiate a period of time when the electronic gadgets are taken out, or kept switched off, just while a good bed routine is established. It wouldn’t need to be more than a few days, or a couple of weeks at most. Try to avoid a row about it – that won’t help to keep the stress levels down.
Keep the room cool, relaxed and as dark as possible. Black-out curtains are a great way to block out light. If possible, make sure that your teenager is exercising every day – 30 minutes in the sunshine helps to produce melatonin, which helps to prepare the body for sleep.
Encourage your teenager to get into a routine – it signals the body that it’s time for bed, so at roughly the same time every night, ensure they get ready, brush their teeth, and get into bed.
The bed is very important. Second-hand beds should be avoided. Another common problem is where teenagers are still sleeping on a bunk bed or a bed that moves around when they move – usually loose metal-frame beds. This will disturb your teenager's sleep as they move naturally in their sleep. The investment in a good bed and pillows is worth it!
12. What is a sensible time for pre-teens and teens to get to bed?
The latest study shows that if parents set a bed-time teenagers get better sleep. Work out what time your teenager has to get up to give them enough time for a good breakfast and to get to school. Work backwards to make ensure they can get nine hours' sleep.
For example, if your teenager needs to be up at 7.00 am, they will need to get to bed (that means lights out!) at 10.00pm.
13. What is the best way to get children up in the mornings?
Well, don’t go in shouting "come on, it’s time to get up, rise and shine!" Your teenager is unlikely to oblige! Go in and quietly draw the curtains, letting in the natural light. With a regular routine, their body will start to produce the right chemicals and hormones to wake up naturally – cortisol being one of them.
It’s better to wake to music rather than an alarm which will literally ‘alarm’ them, but if they've slept well and getting the routine right, you’ll soon find that their body clock does it for them.
14. Parents often struggle with their children over bed-times. What ideas can you give them?
Work with them – help children and teenagers understand how important sleep is. Of course, parents could set a good example – if they are sitting up until after midnight to watch a late film and are not great in the morning then it’s more likely their children will too.
Negotiate a deal – particularly for younger children. Have a reward chart. If a child stays in bed and sleeps well, they could earn stars which could go towards a treat, such as an evening out (not too late of course!), a favourite DVD, or a favourite activity.
For older children and teenagers, where possible, empower them to take control and learn to make the right choices about their health for themselves. Don’t make it an issue that leads to arguments and rows – it won’t help. Set a good example – where you go, your children will follow!
Encourage your daughter to try the Tips for sleeping well on our downloads page.
15. Many of the electronic gadgets that children use have been criticised for interfering with their getting to sleep. What do you recommend?
The advice given is always, where possible, to keep these items out of the bedroom. In the 21st century, though, that may not be realistic. What can be done is by education and example. Show teenagers that they can make a choice about turning these things off and taking care of themselves by getting to sleep. If they learn to make these healthy choices at home, they’ll keep making them when they leave home.
A lot of this is about emotional resiliency – making a choice between playing a computer game until two in the morning or being able to say to themselves,
"I know I’d like to do that, but I also know I’ll feel better if I get some sleep. I’ll do better at school and I’ll feel better about myself, so I won’t play the computer game just now."
16. Should parents let their teenagers have a long lie-in on the weekends and during the holidays?
No! Stick to the routine of roughly the same bed-time and waking-up-time (give or take 15-30 minutes) and they shouldn’t need to have lie-ins.
Lie-ins can really damage the quality of sleep that teenagers get.
Top tips for teen and pre-teen girls
16. What are your top tips for girls for getting a good night's sleep?
- Get into a routine.
- Go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time every night and morning.
- Get some exercise every day.
- Eat well.
- Take control of your own health.
- Learn to recognise when you are suffering from a lack of sleep.
- Clock watch.
- Sleep in at weekends or during the holidays.
- Rely on high-caffeine drinks to keep you awake.
- Spend time on your phone or the computer or watch TV before bed.
Fun things to try and further reading
Download our Tips for sleeping well and see if you can improve your sleep by trying just five things on the list.
Try the Sheep game on the BBC's website. It's a fun way to test your reactions. How awake are you really? But we'd prefer you try something other than coffee if your reactions are slow!
Nikki Cameron has worked as a sleep counsellor for Sleep Scotland and devised for them an educational programme currently being trialled in schools in Glasgow. She has been a teacher for almost 30 years, working with pupils who are dealing with social and emotional or behavioural difficulties, and she also supports parents of children with additional support needs. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, telephone 07738820264. www.thesleepcounsellor.co.uk
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