The Time for SleepMost people have fairly strong ideas about what is the right time to sleep. This may depend on how they have been brought up, or have developed from the demands of work, family and other commitments. For some, fitting in a few hours shut-eye is very low on their list of priorities.

Few people see sleep as an important part of their lives, until their pattern of sleep is disturbed. Life changes such as a new baby, illness and travel may have a temporary affect on our ability to sleep. These disturbances are usually short term. The ‘body clock’ copes with these temporary interferences and after a while sleep is reinstated.

The fact is that most of us are not getting enough sleep. On average, the traditional 8 hours slumber is now reduced to around 6 to 7 hours. It is not surprising that so many of us are suffering from stress and other anxiety related disorders – we are all tired!

So if we are all tired, why do we have such a problem sleeping? Have we just lost the habit?

This, amongst other lifestyle factors appears to have affected our ability to get enough sleep. Sleep specialists suggest that we may be interfering with the ‘automatic’ nature of sleep. People who sleep well are usually unaware of their achievement – it is as natural as breathing. It is just something they do!

When sleep becomes a problem, whether it’s falling asleep, interrupted sleep, early waking or any other disturbance, we start to take control of what should be a natural function. This makes us conscious of what we now see as a ‘problem’ and prevents us from falling asleep.

Sleep and the Developing Child

Babies naturally need more sleep, sleeping up to 18 hours a day. After the first 6 months they usually start to fall into a routine, adjusting to night and day. Infants may sleep for up to 12 hours each night and continue to need daytime naps.

Children continue to need more sleep than adults as they grow. They expend more energy and need to be able to concentrate at school and interact with their friends and teachers. Sleep is essential for mental and physical development. From the age of 4 they need between10 and 12 hours sleep. They can usually do without a daytime nap as long as they are getting enough sleep at night.

During the early years parents usually control bedtime. A set bedtime routine, the opportunity to nap and being allowed to wake naturally helps ensure they have sufficient sleep.

As children become older they are increasingly likely to suffer from lack of sleep. The bedtime ‘ritual’ may be non-existent. The growth of 24-hour television services and the Internet means many children are going to bed later, as a lot of kids have this technology in their bedroom, this and other factors affect the quality of their sleep.

Research has shown that poor or interrupted sleep affects the next day’s performance. Learning and behaviour improve if sleep patterns are reinstated. Children benefit from fixed bed and waking times and ensuring they have enough sleep.

Sleep and the Internet

During adolescence children are affected by changes in their Circadian Rhythm. They continue to need about 9 hours sleep but sometimes are getting far less on a regular basis. They start to sleep later and wake later in the morning. Studies have shown that their mental ability is not at its best in the early morning – no surprise to any parent of a drowsy teenager!

The older child also often has complete control of the time they go to bed. Lifestyle choices often mean teenagers are depriving themselves of the 10 hours sleep they need, causing some of the behavioural problems associated with lack of sleep such as irritability and lethargy.

Students and Sleep

Lack of sleep affects concentration and the ability to learn. Students are often under pressure with their studies, work and other interests and rarely acknowledge their need to sleep. Their physical and mental health may be in danger if they spend long periods without sufficient sleep.

Students also make their own lifestyle choices and whilst they are well aware of the risk to health from other factors such as drugs, alcohol and poor nutrition, they may be less aware of the damage to their physical and mental health from lack of sleep than adults.

Late nights, pressure from studies, an active social life and other demands means sleep is hard to fit in…Diet, alcohol and other stresses may all take their toll on the quality of the sleep they do manage to get.

Although it may not be possible to have any control over their sleep, it might be possible to make them more aware of the benefits of a good night sleep.

Sleep and Adults

Many adults complain of feeling tired even though they sleep well. This suggests that many people are just not getting enough sleep.

Many workers commute long distances and work long hours. Some even have two jobs. Childcare, the school run and 24-hour shopping mean that the day may stretch well into the night. The availability of communication and entertainment throughout the night mean that we are getting far less sleep than our parents.

Many of us are suffering from sleep deprivation without even knowing it. If symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, loss of concentration and feeling ‘down’ sound familiar, you may be suffering from lack of sleep.

Healthy adults need about 7 – 8 hours sleep. Many are getting far less, which has implications for our health and wellbeing and can affect our work and relationships. Lack of sleep is a contributing factor towards absenteeism and accidents. By allowing ourselves to go without sleep we may be putting our families at risk. A hard price to pay for an extra hour asleep each night!

Aging and Napping

As people age they often find it difficult to sleep and accept this as part of the aging process. The truth is; the need for sleep does not decline with age, only the ability to achieve it! Sleep may be restricted to around six hours during the night, topped up with a daytime nap.

AM or PM?

Today’s lifestyle does not help us to establish a regular sleeping pattern. Adults often see sleep as a ‘luxury’. Although we continue to enjoy the benefits, we do not always see it as necessity for a healthy life.

We may see others and ourselves as ‘morning’ or ‘evening’ people, choosing a time of day when we feel we function at our best. ‘Owls and Larks’ usually adapt to their own individual body clock and adapt their sleep pattern to encompass this tendency.