Students: To make the As, catch more Zs

You’ve read the school supply list and checked it twice. Backpacks are stocked with pens, paper and notebooks. Lunches are packed. Bus schedules memorized. But there’s one vital item missing from every school’s supply list: sleep.

The National Sleep Foundation calls sleep “food for the brain.” It’s time to rest and repair tissues, and the body requires sleep to function properly and efficiently. Medical experts agree that it’s a necessity if students are going to succeed in the classroom.

“Gradeschoolers typically have a bedtime set by their parents, so they usually get the sleep they need,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D., a physician and medical researcher. “But for a variety of reasons, teens often fall behind on sleep, and that compromises both their immune systems and cognitive functioning.”

Studies of teenagers have found that their bodies don’t begin producing melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone, until later in the evening than adults and young children. “Teens’ sleep cycles don’t kick into gear until a little before midnight,” said Prescott. Socializing, screen time and homework further cut into hours that should be devoted to shut-eye. “Even though they may look grown-up, teens still need as much sleep as preschoolers—at least eight to nine hours per night,” said Prescott.

When the late nights pile up, said Prescott, the cumulative loss of sleep impairs the brain’s ability to concentrate on schoolwork or stay awake in class. Sleep-deprived adolescents have shown a higher incidence of causing or being involved in car crashes, and they can exhibit signs of depression.

“When sleeplessness causes behavioral changes, it’s no longer just a teen problem, it’s a health problem,” said Prescott. Research has also shown that sleep deprivation suppresses the immune system, leaving the body more prone to illness and infection. “We need to help students learn how to get the rest they need, not only for school but also for their overall well-being.”

Because school start times can conflict with adolescents’ natural sleep cycles, some districts have implemented later start times for middle and high schools, sometimes moving first-hour classes to as late as 9 a.m.

But regardless of when your child’s school bell rings in the morning, here are a few ways to help your students—and their parents—get enough sleep:

• Maintain a consistent bedtime. Go to bed at the same time every night, even on weekends.
• Light tells the brain to wake up, so avoid bright light sources like cell phones, computers and TV, beginning 30 minutes before going to bed. Dim room lights, if possible.
• Get regular exercise. Active teens sleep more soundly, and they’re more likely to be ready to sleep at the right time. But avoid exercise just before bedtime.
• Eat a healthy, low-sugar diet to avoid blood sugar spikes that might interrupt sleep.
• Use earplugs if noises interfere with sleep. “White noise” from a fan may help mask other sounds in the room.

“A well-rested student will benefit in more ways than just a higher grade-point average,” Prescott said. “They’ll be happier and healthier, and they’ll develop good sleep habits for life.”

But, Prescott said, don’t limit your efforts to your children. “The vast majority of Americans are sleep-deprived,” he said. “We can all benefit from improving our sleep habits.”