The Thistle - An E-Newsletter of Scotch College, Perth, Western Australia


"Sleep! O gentle sleep! Nature's soft nurse." Henry IV Part 2 (1597)

At this time of year, it is important to go back to basics and remind our students of the imperative of getting a good night's sleep. Shakespeare knew it five hundred years ago and although we know much more about sleep these days, the general point of sleep and what actually happens in the brain while we are asleep are still somewhat of a mystery.

We do know that good sleep is incredibly important to our functioning well. For young people, growth hormones are secreted during sleep. Adolescents experience natural hormonal changes which shift their body clock; it is normal for them to want to go to bed later, but the amount of sleep needed actually increases. Nine and 10 year-olds actually need less sleep than young adolescents, who need between seven to nine hours a night. The actual amount depends on the individual and you and your son should be able to tell at which end of that time-frame he sits. 'Monday morning blues' are common in young people. These are a result of teens shifting their body clock over the weekend (staying up later and getting up later due to going out with friends, watching movies, playing computer games). A late night should be a treat, not a given.

We sleep in roughly 90-minute cycles (experiencing four or five of these a night) and it is now believed that there are five phases of sleep. It has been compared to being on a roller-coaster, with the first three phases taking us into deep sleep and then the fourth bringing us back up and the fifth being when REM sleep occurs, at the end of the cycle. Dreaming occurs during this phase. This is when the brain consolidates information, shifting things from our short-term to long-term memory; trying to file away information from that day. Lack of sleep deprives us of the opportunity to do this. Sleep is a very active state, and the amount of oxygen we use in some parts of the brain is higher when asleep than while we are awake. We still are not sure what is going on, although it appears that it involves the removal of toxins, the formation of memories and the sorting of emotions. Almost every part of the brain becomes active at various times during a night's sleep.

Lack of sleep is linked to obesity. Sleep loss is associated with becoming aggressive more quickly than normal. While there is no evidence that REM sleep helps memory, a lack of sleep will interfere with our ability to learn new material and to recall information. Alertness improves mental functioning. There is a direct correlation between more sleep and higher grades.

There are some important things we can do to ensure that we – and our children – get good sleep and plenty of it. I will be sending out a checklist to the students, but I have provided a summary of what can help here. The first, and perhaps most important, thing we can do is to role model good sleep habits ourselves.

A good night's sleep is the result of a combination of things:

In the Morning

  • Get out of bed as soon as you wake
  • Try to wake up at the same time each morning
  • Go outside and get some fresh air
  • Do some physical activity
  • Have a good breakfast (this helps to set your body clock)

During the Day

  • Do not nap; if you are tired, make it no more than 20 minutes and not after 4.00pm
  • If you are worrying about things at night when you try to sleep, put aside some time during the day for problem-solving
  • Avoid caffeine after 4.00pm and try not to have more than two cups a day

Before going to bed

  • Try to get to bed at the same time each night
  • Don't go to bed hungry or with a full bladder (avoid sugars – as this can put you on a "roller-coaster"; bananas or unsalted nuts are good – walnuts contain tryptophan which is an amino acid that can help to boost melanonin; and almonds contain muscle-relaxing magnesium; half a cup of oats, peanut butter, turkey)
  • Avoid vigorous exercise in the evening
  • Have some down-time before you go to bed (read or do something relaxing for 30 minutes – no technology)
  • Use your bed for sleep and not for work/gaming
  • Have a warm drink (milk; chamomile tea)

While you Sleep

  • Don't have your phone near you; it will only keep you awake (use an alarm clock, but make sure you can't see it – watching the clock is not helpful; if the alarm hasn't gone off yet, it's still time to rest)
  • Make your bedroom quiet, dim and cool
  • Don't be too hot or too cold (keep your feet warm – cold feet can keep you awake)

If you can't get to Sleep

  • Focus on your breathing (slow and deep)
  • Listen to quiet music
  • Try counting sheep (yes, it sounds ridiculous, but it can work), or think about something you are looking forward to or a pleasant experience in the past (it could be a holiday)
  • If you still can't sleep after 30 minutes, get up and do something quiet and distracting (playing cards, reading, have a warm bath)
  • Make a list of the things you are worried about, or that you need to do the next day (you can do this before bed)
  • Take your time – there is no hurry (people often over-estimate how long they have been trying to get to sleep)
  • Try muscle relaxation – start with your toes (scrunch them up and relax them) and work your way up your body
  • Remind yourself that resting in bed is nice
  • Replace negative thoughts with a positive sentence
  • Make yourself smile a bit – the physical action of smiling has all sorts of good effects on the mind and makes us feel better

It is important to note that setting up a good routine will take time. Most of the things listed above need to be done for at least three weeks before any improvement will be noticed. Worrying about not getting to sleep can make it harder to get to sleep, so try to distract yourself with some of the techniques mentioned above. If all else fails, remember that lying in bed is relaxing and allows the body to rest.

SchoolTV, the website to which Scotch College subscribes, has a special section dedicated to this topic and I recommend you have a look through some of the short videos and fact sheets on the page:

Mr James Hindle
Director of Student and Staff Wellbeing