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Back to school and back to sleep: Consistent routine, no devices late at night among keys to proper rest

Whether it's the first year of kindergarten or freshman year at college, all students will benefit this school year from getting enough of this one, simple resource: sleep.

Numerous studies have shown that getting enough quality sleep is correlated with better academic performance and missing out on sleep with doing poorly at school.


And yet 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. get less than the seven to eight hours of sleep recommended, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This is despite the recipe for a good night's rest being such an easy one, according to Dr. Amit Narula, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Carroll Hospital. It starts with going to bed and waking up at regular times each night and day.


"It's all about a regular and consistent sleep schedule, a relaxing bedtime routine," he said. "Same sleeping environment every night in a room that is cool, quiet and dark."

For adults, and that includes students 16 and older, Narula said, seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is the goal, and how they face the morning is the litmus test.

"A person should be able to wake up without the alarm clock's assistance and feel refreshed and ready to tackle their day," he said.

Of course, life does tend to get in the way, Narula admits. And if it didn't for young people when they were in grade school, college — with it's social life, studying and extracurriculars — might be a different story. An extra focus on the fine points of sleep hygiene may be warranted, such as avoiding the use of blue light emitting electronics (smartphones, TV, iPads) within an hour before bed, consuming caffeine late in the day or using tobacco.

And then there's alcohol, which, Narula said, any folk claims to the contrary, does not make a good sleep aid.

"Alcohol is a depressant, so it's a good sleep initiator, but it's a very poor sleep maintainer because it causes a lot of frequent awakening," he said.

Alcohol can also exacerbate other issues that prevent quality sleep. According to Narula, since alcohol is a muscle relaxant, it poses a real problem for those predisposed to sleep apnea.

"It can make sleep apnea a lot worse and doesn't allow you to stay in your deep sleep," he said. "All the sleep you are getting is superficial because your upper airway is trying to stay open but it can't; the muscles are relaxed from the alcohol."


Thankfully, Narula said, healthy 18- and 20-year-olds can typically afford to miss some sleep if they need to stay up late so that they can study for an exam — so long as they get back to their regularly scheduled sleep routine when possible.

"You can try to catch up on that weekend. Then you start afresh with your normal bedtime routine thereafter," he said. "It's only wrong if that's your every day and every weekend you are trying to catch up. But once in awhile is tolerable."

When it comes to younger children, however, sleep is of greater importance, Narula said, and it is up to parents to make certain their children get it.

"As far as the 6-to-13 age group, so elementary through middle and early high school, the literature says they need between nine and 11 hours of sleep at that age," he said. "The key, again, is to have a consistent bedtime routine. … You go to bed at a similar bed time, especially at this age where they need the structure."

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Children can be a lot busier today, Narula said, between sports and homework and extracurricular activities. But taking the time to make sure they get enough sleep is important, especially because making sudden changes — say, in response to school starting — is tougher than gradually adjusting bedtime.

"Making drastic changes in people's sleep initiation times, whether it's for a child or an adult, is going to be unsuccessful," Narula said. "You are supposed to change between 30 minutes and 60 minutes every day, or every other day, as far as advancing earlier or later. Any more than that and you are not going to be able to fall asleep: It just doesn't work."


But one of the biggest issues Narula sees in his practice with regards to sleep and young children isn't scheduling sleep; it's controlling the light environment around bedtime. He cannot emphasize too much that within an hour of bed, there should be no TV, no screens.

"With kids you can't have TVs, iPhone, iPads. It's such an impediment to proper sleep," he said. "I see it all the time in the practice here. Kids coming up with insomnia, tired during the day, and they have free reign: They have a TV in their room and they have an iPhone in their hand, and they wonder why they are just so tired during the day."