News flash! College students don’t get enough sleep!
Well, actually, this may not be a news flash for anyone. Americans overall are getting less sleep, and many of us recognize that we need more than we are getting. But college students are the group most deprived of the sleep that they need. One study reported that up to 60% of college students reported poor quality sleep, and college students today get approximately two hours less sleep a night than students in the 1980’s.
Sleep is vital to our well-being, and not getting enough can affect students’ health, moods, safety, and GPA. Many students, who may be in charge of their sleep habits for the first time in their lives (Mom isn’t telling them it’s time for bed), underestimate their need for sleep and may not realize the extent of the harmful effects of lack of sleep. As they try to balance classes, jobs, new independence and social lives, students often develop unhealthy patterns and habits.
As a college parent, you ultimately have no control over how much sleep your college student gets, and that’s appropriate. Part of the college experience is learning how to regulate your life. But just as you might talk to your student about their time management or financial budget, have a conversation with your student about sleep habits. This may be especially important if your student feels chronically tired, irritable, sleeps excessively on the weekends, or is struggling academically. Help your student understand the importance of sleep, and help them think about how to get more.
Does sleep really matter all that much?
We all have different sleep needs, but most of us underestimate the amount of sleep that we truly need. Most adults need between 6-10 hours of sleep per night. College age students need closer to the 8-10 hours per night. Unfortunately, sleep is often a low priority for students. In fact, on many campuses, there are bragging rights associated with how little sleep that students get. When students talk about sleep, they refer to it negatively as much as 80% of the time. Most students may not recognize the importance of a good night’s sleep.
Sleep is one of the times that learning takes place. It is while we are sleeping that the brain organizes, sorts and stores information and makes important connections. There is a reason why we often say we need to ”sleep on it” when we are faced with a problem or decision. Work is taking place while we sleep. One study has indicated that students who consistently pull ”all- nighters” have lower GPA’s. Students who consistently sleep for 7-8 hours per night have higher GPA’s. Over time, loss of sleep accumulates ”sleep debt” and, just like being in financial debt, it becomes difficult to recover. If your student is struggling academically, suggest that they examine their sleep habits as a start.
What are the effects of lack of sleep?
Students recognize that lack of sleep causes them to feel tired, but they may not recognize how pervasive and serious the effects of lack of sleep might be. Poor sleep habits can be a predictor of poor academic performance, depression, feelings of isolation, and chronic health problems. Help your student understand that lack of sleep can be serious and be a factor of in many of the following:
- Students may become more susceptible to illness — colds, flu, viruses — because of lowered immune systems.
- Students experience more stress and are less capable of dealing with the stress they experience.
- Students may experience increased weight gain, sometimes because students who are tired may make less healthy food choices.
- Students experience increased depression and anxiety.
- Students have decreased athletic ability.
- Students have a decreased attention span.
- Students experience increased feelings of irritation and anger.
- Students’ academic performance is affected and they often have lower GPA’s.
- Students are in danger of ”driving drowsy”, one of the major causes of accidents for college age students.
What can your student do about lack of sleep?
There is no doubt that getting enough sleep while in college is difficult. Helping your student understand the importance of getting enough sleep is a start, but they will then need to be able to get more of the sleep that they need. Once again, each student is different, but here are a few things you might discuss. Getting more sleep may be hard work.
- Try to establish a regular schedule and go to bed close to the same time each night — including weekends. This is, of course, difficult when there is an active social life on campus, but making an attempt will help.
- Try to get up at approximately the same time each day. One of the difficulties with a college schedule may be early classes some days and later classes on others. If your student can get up close to the same time each day, it will be easier for their body to establish a sleep/wake rhythm.
- Get exercise and remain active during the day.
- Establish a bedtime routine that signals sleep. Remember the quiet time/bath/story routine of childhood? Just a simple routine of changing clothes, brushing teeth and turning out a light can help your student settle down.
- Finish eating major meals a couple of hours before sleep.
- Avoid caffeine several hours before sleeping. This includes many kinds of soda and energy drinks.
- Avoid alcohol before bedtime. Alcohol may make it easier to get to sleep, but sleep may not be as beneficial because it is disturbed during the night.
- Turn off electronics and devices around bedtime. The constant beep of texts or e-mail can disturb sleep.
- Work on time management to try to avoid all-nighters and late night study sessions.
- Take power naps. College students love naps (30-50 % of students say they nap), but they often nap too late in the day and for too long. Naps of 20-30 minutes early in the afternoon can be helpful without disturbing sleep cycles.
- If the dorm is noisy, use earplugs or a white noise machine to shut out disturbances.
- Turn off the light in the room or ask a roommate to use a small desk lamp if studying.
- Try to use your bed for sleep and not for studying, watching TV, playing games. Make your bed as comfortable as possible.
Sleep Rocks! Get More of It!
The University of Georgia Health Center uses the above slogan to help students understand the importance of sleep. This, perhaps, is the biggest challenge. There are many things that students can do to ensure that they get more sleep, but they need first to recognize its importance.
Slumber Yard, a mattress review site, has also published a good, well researched guide that may help you talk to your student about sleep.
Share some of these facts and suggestions with your student. Encourage them to evaluate their sleep habits and their effect on performance and goals. And then (and yes, this is the difficult part) step back and let your student discover their balance and do the work of getting enough sleep.