Sleep and brain function

Adults need between 7 and 8 hours of sleep per night. School aged children and teenagers need at least 9 hours of sleep a night. Functional neuroimaging now allows us to compare brain function in people who aren’t getting enough sleep each night with those who are. After only a week of restricted sleep (6 ½ hours for adults), brain activation substantially declines. Particularly in the frontal lobe: affecting attention, problem solving, and the ability to resist distracters.

Real consequences of restricted sleep:

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  • Poor attention
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty with memory
  • Increased risk taking and impulsivity
  • Slowed reaction time
  • For many children, increased activity/ hyperactivity

Ironically, sleep deprived children (those getting less than 9 hours a night) will often be MORE active the next day, rather than “look tired.” Parents may then conclude that the children have gotten enough sleep. Because the brain has trouble with memory and attention, as well as controlling impulsivity after a poor nights’ sleep, kids with chronic sleep deprivation can be misdiagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder.

Benefits of a good night’s sleep

  • Neural pathways form or are reinforced for learning and remembering
  • Capacity to remember is improved
  • Information or skills learned the day before are recalled better (if you learn a skill, then have a good night’s sleep, studies show that you can recall the skill BETTER than immediately after you originally learned it.)

Click here for a great article: Sleep acts as your brain's janitor

Barriers to sleep:

Circadian Rhythms:

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  • Many teenagers do not get enough sleep because start times for high schools conflict with teenagers’ natural circadian rhythms. They naturally want to go to sleep late and get up late.


  • Many adults have literally not scheduled enough time to sleep. By the time they have finished work, spent time with their families, done household chores, and spent some down time, they find it is after midnight. Ironically, when sleep deprived, everything takes longer, and a vicious cycle may develop with later and later bedtimes in order to complete work and other tasks.
  • Teenagers also can be very over scheduled these days between sports and academic activities, many do not finish their daily tasks until very late at night, with literally “no time to sleep.”

Over stimulation:

  • TV is specifically designed to capture our attention through frequent rapid edits that are highly stimulating to watch. Even news programs are now edited this way. Video games, music, and internet/ IM/ emailing are also highly stimulating activities. Many kids and adults use these technologies right up until bed time. This high level of stimulation makes falling asleep very difficult

Using exhaustion as a sleep technique.

  • Many teenagers and adults have forgotten how to put themselves to sleep. Younger children typically use a sleep routine. An hour before the target bedtime, they take a bath, get into pajamas, read a story, and relax. By the time the light is turned out, their brains are ready to sleep. In contrast, many adults and teenagers are highly stimulated right until the moment of getting into bed. When their head hits the pillow, they are wide awake, and incorrectly conclude that they are not tired. They may be tired, but over stimulated and not ready to fall asleep. Many then wait to put their heads on the pillows until very late at night, when exhaustion will allow them to fall asleep even when over stimulated.

How to get a good night’s sleep:

  • Establish a scheduled bedtime: Count backwards from your wake up time. Adults should target 8 hours, school aged children and teenagers 9, and preschoolers 10-12.
  • Create a bed time routine: Yes! Even adults should start one hour before your scheduled bed time in order to allow your brain to come in for a soft landing. Getting into bed at your scheduled sleep time highly stimulated will not work. You will just have to begin the process of relaxing into sleep at that moment, and will probably not fall asleep until an hour or more after your target time.
  • What should a bedtime routine look like?
    • Relax with a hot bath or shower
    • Get into pajamas
    • Electronics Blackout. Turn off the TV, IPod, computer, and Xbox. Electronic devices are highly stimulating.
    • Instead, read a book, play a quite game, write in a journal, meditate, etc. Exercise right before bed is not a good idea, as it is stimulating.
    • If you are someone who lies awake thinking about all that you forgot to do today, or what needs to be done the next day, spend a moment or so half way through your bed time routine writing a list of all of tomorrow’s tasks. Keep the pad of paper near your bed in case you need to add something else. The idea is to get it out of your head, and down on the paper.
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