Sleep and Learning in Adolescents

Adolescents are sleeping less then 20 years ago even though sleep needs remain just as vital to health and well-being for teenagers as when they were younger. It turns out that many teenagers actually may need more sleep than in previous years. However, for many teenagers, social pressures and screen time conspire against getting the proper amount and quality of sleep. This can result in an accumulated sleep debt which needs to be cleared by sleeping in on weekends – much to the frustration of parents.

Your circadian rhythms, or “body clock”, sync many of your bodily functions during sleep; including hormone release, appetite, immune system, brain development and learning. Big shifts in your sleep timing are like being in a constant state of jetlag.

Sleep has consequences for appetite and weight regulation, the cardiovascular system, immune system endocrine system and brain development. In particular; REM sleep (the dreaming stage) is associated with the release of BDNF which in simple terms, is the growth of new neurones which is associated with learning.

How do you achieve a good night’s sleep? Psychologists talk about ‘sleep hygiene’ but another way to think of this is ‘sleep habits’. Interventions for the adolescent population typically include:

  • Sleep hygiene: reduce stimulating night time activities, including screens, movies and games
  • Caffeine, sugary drinks and some foods can all stimulate our brain, so these should be avoided before bedtime.
  • Dim the lights to encourage the brain to slow down.
  • Sleep restriction (ie, limiting time in bed based on how long one actually sleeps) to create more positive associations with sleeping and a greater physiological pressure for sleep.
  • Furthermore, using the bed for sleep only and removing one’s self from bed if unable to sleep are important aspects of this intervention.
  • If you have problems falling asleep, go to bed when you’re tired and make sure to get up at about the same time every day. Try to keep this routine on the weekend and even after a night of poor sleep.
  • Relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and guided imagery have also been found to reduce sleep problems. In addition, negative cognitions associated with sleep (eg; “I must get 8 hours of sleep or I will not be able to function”) are targeted.