Dr. Gruber is leading a national committee of psychologists, pediatricians and scientists that is developing new guidelines for healthy sleep for children and youth and strategies to prevent sleep deprivation. When it comes to public health policy, prominent researchers argue that sleep deserves a higher profile – right up with making sure a child gets 60 minutes of exercise a day.
In fact, stressing exercise without giving sleep equal weight may have done some harm, suggests Mark Tremblay, director of the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa.
Dr. Tremblay led the committee that revised the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines last year, and says that “sleep has been largely lost in this discussion” even though it is vital to a healthy lifestyle.
He worries that parents feel that it’s enough to take their kids to hockey practice on Saturday morning. “As a parent of four kids, I don’t know if I can recall … when I have ever talked casually to neighbours about sleep as an important thing in our children’s lives …,” he says.
“We need to draw sleep into the popular vernacular.”
In Grade 9, to stay awake in class, Ottawa student Andrew Zeigler chugged Monster energy drinks regularly. “I knew it would give me a jump start,” he says, “almost like a car that’s broken down.” Then he began to worry about what was in what he was drinking, and switched to slushies for his midday jolt.
Now, in Grade 11, he’s trying to eat a good breakfast, but with just five hours of sleep most nights, he still feels that he is running on empty. Even so, he has trouble falling asleep: “My mind is on a lot of things.”
Teenagers may be dozy by nature, and concern about children not getting enough sleep goes back more than a century, but research shows that young people really are sleeping less than their parents did at the same age. If anything, culture has shifted away from helping teenagers sleep, with the distractions of 2 a.m. texts, and pressure of extracurricular activities and school performance.
It’s a common teenage tale: In a survey released this week by the Toronto District School Board, 29 per cent of high-school students said they “lose sleep because of worries” and 48 per cent said they feel “tired for no reason,” often if not all the time.
None of the 10 high-school students who commented for this article gets more than seven hours a night, and half admitted to having nodded off in a morning class. They all want more sleep, but none quite knows how to get it.
An obvious solution is to delay the start of the school day. One U.S. study found that pushing school starts times by just one hour improved academic performance and attendance. Many high schools still start at 8 a.m. or shortly afterward – which Dr. Roenneberg, the German sleep researcher, considers evidence of “the enormous discrimination against these young children who are brought to school in the middle of their internal sleep.”
He cites studies that show the academic disadvantages vanish in university, when students can choose later classes.
How much sleep people need and whether they would rather rise early or late are decided by genes, age and how much light they get. There is even a physiological explanation for why teens are notorious for sleeping late. During puberty, melatonin, the hormone that regulates the sleep cycle, is released in the body later in the evening – around 9 or 10 p.m. This makes it difficult for teenagers to nod off early, and nearly impossible, given family and school schedules, for them to get the optimal nine to 10 hours that health guidelines suggest they need.
What’s more, Dr. Roenneberg suggests, our body clocks are out of sync with modern life. “They evolved thinking we would be outside in broad daylight during the day and inside in pitch darkness during the night. We are not living that way any more.” As a result, we get by on less sleep than we need, and spend every night trying to catch up.