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North Hills Monthly

Sleep Essential for Student Success

Jul 31, 2017 08:24PM ● By Beth Gavaghan

Rebekah Delling of the Hampton Holistic Center

Students will soon be filling their school supplies list, but one need that cannot be bought is the most necessary—sleep. Consistent, quality sleep is important for cognition, learning and memory as well as overall physical and mental health. 

Dr. Peter Franzen, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, conducts research on adolescents and sleep. He said that sleep affects the ability to fight infections, as well as cardiovascular function and weight gain over time. It also facilitates a healthy mind.

“If you don’t sleep enough, you are at risk for developing depression, being suicidal, using substances and having car crashes,” Franzen said. “You name it—bad sleep is linked with bad things.”

The National Sleep Foundation recommends children ages 6 to 13 receive nine to 11 hours of sleep and those ages 14 to 17 receive eight to 10 hours. But the ability to get a good night’s sleep can be a challenge, especially for middle and high schoolers.

“There are a couple of biological influences going on,” Franzen said, noting that sleep is controlled by both circadian rhythms (sometimes called the biological clock) and the homeostatic sleep drive, or need for sleep. During puberty, the sleep drive begins to diminish while the biological clock lengthens, so there is less pressure to fall sleep in combination with delaying circadian rhythms.

The body’s daily production of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep timing, starts to delay around puberty, getting later by around one to three hours. “All these things converge to make it more difficult for kids to fall asleep easily at night and to wake easily in the morning,” Franzen said.

Early school start times contribute to the problem. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control recommend middle and high school students start their school day no earlier than 8:30 a.m.; however, many middle and high schools start the school day much earlier, both regionally and nationally.

“We’re sending our teenagers to school essentially during their biological night and expecting them to be awake and learning,” Franzen said. He added that districts that have implemented a later start time have seen improved student performance, less tardiness and fewer missed school days.

Delaying start times for older students can be complicated, which may be why so few school districts have done it. Bus scheduling and parent needs, particularly in cases where older siblings need to arrive home first to take care of younger siblings, come into play. A quick look at Pittsburgh’s northern suburban middle and high schools did not reveal any that had adopted later start times, with the average start time being 7:40 a.m.

Jam-packed schedules are another obstacle to getting quality shut eye. With schoolwork, jobs, activities, lessons and sports, it becomes a problem for teens to budget enough time for sleep. Unfortunately, they often try to make up for sleep lost during the week by sleeping in on weekends, which doesn’t work.

“Essentially, it’s like flying from California to New York every week and having jet lag,” Franzen said. “If you maintain a consistent daily sleep rhythm, then you tend to do better. But the problem is that you have to be getting enough sleep every day.” To this end, Franzen recommends allowing enough time to sleep, and leaving the phone and LED devices out of the bedroom.

Rebekah Delling is a sleep coach and owner of Hampton Holistic Center. Her business specializes in wellness and achieving optimal sleep, so much so that the company is transitioning from a general wellness center to focus on therapeutic massage and sleep services. Her interest in the subject grew out of her personal struggle to get enough sleep.

“A lot of people have a hard time giving in to sleep,” said Delling, adding that it is a problem people of all ages face. She has seen clients as young as 10 years old.

“People think that they’re going to miss something, and that they could be more productive if they stay up an extra hour,” she added. “But they’re actually going to be less productive the next day and throughout the week. Give yourself that permission to go to sleep. Sleep is a necessity. It’s not a luxury. We need it.”

Delling noted that the demands of sports and academics put a lot of pressure on children. “The sports schedules for these kids are insane sometimes, and then they go home and still have to do homework. They’re not getting to sleep until midnight,” she said.

As a result, kids turn to things such as caffeine, energy drinks and food to stay awake and focused.

“Sleep impairment causes lack of focus, impairment, aggression and irritability. All those things interfere with study and with being a happy, healthy human being,” Delling said.

She recommends establishing a nighttime routine for a half-hour or preferably an hour before bed that includes putting away electronics. “Darken the room, take a hot bath, drink a cup of tea,” she said. Journaling, stretching and gentle yoga, meditation and relaxing music are some of the tools students can use as aids to falling asleep.

While biological factors and crazy schedules may make it challenging for students to obtain optimal sleep, it is not impossible. It may take some planning, but sleep is one supply that students shouldn’t skip. 

For more information on sleep and health, visit and or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at