“…The innocent sleep,

The death of each day’s life,

sore labour’s bath,

balm of hurt minds,

great nature’s second course.”

– William Shakespeare


If you’re an average person, around 36 percent of your life will be spent asleep, which is the equivalent of 32 years in the life of a 90 year old. It must be pretty important to take up that much time, yet sleep deprivation is reaching epidemic proportions in today’s fast-paced society. In the 1950s, most of us reported around 8 hours of sleep a night. Nowadays we’re more likely to report 1½ to 2 hours less.

For a generation of screenagers that check their mobiles every 15 minutes, the lure of social media, snapchat, instagram and facebook – means they simply have more reasons than previous generations, for staying up late at night.

The problem is that many of today’s young people – simply do not catch enough zzz’s and are chronically sleep deprived.

What’s more, as the academic year progresses, many students build up serious sleep debt which can have a grave impact on their physical and mental health.

Although many parents across Australia have raised the white flag on this issue, insufficient sleep has been found to impact on memory, mood and academic performance as well as greatly increasing the risk of accidental injury. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska, the first space shuttle disaster (Challenger) and the Chernobyl nuclear accident have all been attributed to human errors in which sleep-deprivation played a role. One Australian insurance company, (the NRMA) estimates motorist fatigue is the third biggest killer on our roads, currently contributing to one in five motor vehicle crashes that result in death or serious injury.

Quality and quantity of sleep are important to both physical and mental health. For example, researchers found that the extra-hour of sleep received when clocks are put back at the start of daylight in Canada has been found to coincide with a fall in the number of road accidents.

How much sleep should young people be getting?

Recent research from Dr Mary Carskadon from Bradley Hospital, Rhode Island suggests that teenagers actually need as much sleep as small children (about 8.5 to 9.2 hrs) but are getting nowhere near enough. Dr Carskadon’s research suggest that the average student is getting about 7.5 hours a night’s sleep on school nights and up to 25 % are getting 6.5 hours or less sleep on school nights.

The Rhode Island researchers have shown that many teenagers have a circadian length of 25-27 hours instead of the normal 24 hours found in adults. In these teenagers, the melatonin upsurge that helps sleep occur seems only to begin at 11pm or later, so they do not feel tired at 9.30pm. This creates problems in the morning because they are not ready to wake in time for school.

What about Parents?

Before the adults start feeling sanctimonious about this, it is worth noting that depending on which sleep expert you speak to, they say that between 50 to 70 percent of adults don’t get enough sleep, and about 40 percent of adults are chronically sleep deprived – but most don’t even know it. The Australasian Sleep Association reports that each year on our highways at least 10,000 accidents and 500 fatalities are due to falling asleep at the wheel and that three million Australians suffer from chronic sleep disorders.

The Australasian Sleep Association suggests that about 46 percent of people rate their sleep fair/poor. They say that just 1 hour less sleep at night can impact one’s alertness the next day by 25 %. If a person averages only six hours of sleep at night, their immunity to viral infection can be affected by50 %. During sleep loss, immune cells usually used to fight disease and infection are activated, leaving them more susceptible to outside infections. That’s why when adults are run down they have a tendency to get sick. Research suggest that chronic sleep loss may also impair the body’s ability to develop antibodies, the goal of all vaccinations. Dr. Eve Van Cauter, of the University of Chicago has shown that the response to the flu vaccine is affected by the amount of sleep that you had during the days prior to vaccination.

The bottom line is that worldwide, people of all ages are increasingly sleep-deprived – making them anxious, grumpy and in some cases – dead.

How would you know if you are sleep deprived?

According to the Australian Sleep Foundation, anything less than five minutes to fall asleep at night means you’re sleep-deprived. Some say that ten and fifteen minutes to fall asleep is okay, meaning you’re still tired enough to sleep deeply, but not so exhausted you feel sleepy during the day.  If you are not sleep deprived, it should take you fifteen to twenty minutes to fall asleep – that is the clearest indication that you are getting the right amount of sleep each night.

However, if you arrive at school most days – really jaded, tired, grumpy, unable to concentrate and seized by an uncontrollable desire to curl up under your desk then you might find this advice useful – not just for your students but for yourself.

The secrets of a good night’s sleep

Dim lights 30 minutes before bedtime

The research is clear that light activates the brain, ensuring at least 30 minutes of dim light before going to sleep is crucial to a great nights sleep. So don’t go into a brightly lit bathroom to brush your teeth, make sure that it is dim.

Implement a routine

Most of the sleep experts agree that getting yourself into a regular pattern of sleeping is crucial. This means going to bed at about the same time each night and awaking at the same time. It also means getting enough sleep – that is, you should awaken feeling refreshed, not tired.

Limit the bed to sleeping

There is a phenomenon in psychology called a ‘time place cue’, which just means that the body can get used to doing the same thing at the same time and in the same place. This can be very helpful to the person who is trying to get a good night’s sleep. What it means for the sleep-deprived student, is that we want their body to associate going to bed – with going to sleep. This means that during this year we want them to keep their bed for sleeping, not to read, eat, study or watch TV in bed! Of course if you are happily doing these things in bed and you are sleeping fine, then disregard this advice.


The benefits of exercise, in terms of sleep, are well documented. Doing something like going for a swim, a game of touch footy etc can induce tiredness and help create a significantly helpful level of weariness. A word of warning though, exercising just before bedtime is not recommended as it can raise levels of arousal.

Relax before bed

After a hard day at school slaving over a hot pentium, many students may get back to home feeling like a pretzel, all wound up, anxious and tense. This will make trying to go to sleep about as easy as nailing jelly to the wall. They need to relax and unwind before trying to get a satisfying night’s sleep. Taking a hot bubble bath, listening to relaxing music (Pachabel’s Canon), reading a magazine, or watching a favourite TV show – can have an amazing impact on preparing them for a night of good sleep.

Don’t sleep in too warm a bed

To catch some serious zzz’s they must cool off; body temperature and the brain’s sleep-wake cycle are closely linked. That’s why a sizzling hot summer night can cause anyone to have a restless sleep. The experts say that blood flow mechanism that transfers core body heat to the skin works best between 18 and 30 degrees. But later in life, the comfort zone shrinks to between 23 and 25 degrees – one reason why teachers and parents have more sleep disorders!

Wear earplugs

Research shows that exposure to noise at night can suppress immune function even if the sleeper doesn’t wake. Unfamiliar noise, and noise during the first and last two hours of sleep, has the greatest disruptive effect on the sleep cycle.

Wake to a bright light

Sleep boffins advise that it is best to expose oneself to a bright light soon after waking, as this helps to signal the brain when it should wake up. Avoid bright lights before bed.



After midday, they should try and stay away from coffee, cola, caffeine and nicotine, which are all stimulants, which can interfere with, sleep. While one would hope that access to alcohol is not an issue, research suggests that alcohol can make students drowsy but can seriously disrupt their sleep.


If an adolescent or parent has persistently poor sleep, the good news is that most major hospitals now have sleep units and there are a growing number of privately run sleep units across Australia. For more information contact the Australian Psychological Society’s national referral services at Telephone 1800 333 497 outside Melbourne (03) 8662 3300 in Melbourne. Email referral@psychsociety.com.au