Sleep and the Brain

Originally written as a letter to parents on April 21, 2011

This week, one of the most popular articles in the New York Times is titled “How Little Sleep Can You Get Away With?” I can just imagine swaths of sleep-deprived adults e-mailing the link to friends!  According to a study detailed in the article, adults who had a full eight hours of sleep had hardly any attention lapses on a “psychomotor vigilance task” (P.V.T.).  In other words, eight hours of sleep allows our brains to function optimally. However,

What was interesting was that those in the four- and six-hour groups had P.V.T. results that declined steadily with almost each passing day. Though the four-hour subjects performed far worse, the six-hour group also consistently fell off-task. By the sixth day, 25 percent of the six-hour group was falling asleep at the computer. And at the end of the study, they were lapsing five times as much as they did the first day . . . [Even] in the seven-hour group, the response time on the P.V.T. slowed and continued to do so for three days.

The article concluded that, “Americans average 6.9 hours on weeknights, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Which means that, whether we like it or not, we are not thinking as clearly as we could be.”

Adolescents like to think that they can stay up late with little consequence.  Perhaps you have fond memories of pulling “all-nighters” in your teen years!  However, research shows that adolescents need more sleep to perform at their best than either elementary-age children or adults – nine hours, optimally.  Middle schoolers, in particular, experience a physical and cognitive growth spurt that is only rivaled by the toddler years. It takes a great deal of energy to sustain this growth!

Lack of sleep clearly takes its toll on academic performance. For example, a study out of Brown University and Holy Cross found that high school students who averaged C’s and D’s went to bed roughly 40 minutes later than those who averaged A’s and B’s. In a recent Psychology Today article, Dr. Nancy Darling aptly noted that, “Middle schoolers often live in a state of chronic sleep deprivation  . . . [and] just like toddlers, when adolescents are tired and hungry, they get CRANKY.”  (Maybe you’ve experienced this first hand in your home!) Dr. Darling recommends consistent sleep/rise times, distraction-free bedrooms, and regular exercise as ways parents can help their older children develop healthy sleep habits. The middle school years are filled with challenges, but many of these are easier for students to navigate when they are well-rested.

From Psychology Today: What Middle School Parents Should Know

From the New York Times: How Little Sleep Can You Get Away With?

APA: Sleep deprivation may be undermining teen health

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