One of the best parts of writing this blog has been getting to know many people who, like myself, are passionate about the importance of sleep. One of the best champions for healthy sleep in teenagers is Terra Ziporyn Snider. Terra is a mother of three and a successful author. She is a former associated editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association and co-author of The Harvard Guide to Women’s Health.Terra is also one of the founders of Start School Later, a non-profit dedicated to improving the sleep of teenagers.
I’ve been living and breathing this issue on both a personal and professional front for years. However, after working futilely to change the 7:17 a.m. high school start times in my local school system, I came to see that even when schools want to change, they often can’t: politics, money, and myth often trump research, common sense, and the best interests of the kids. I also saw that local efforts alone were largely doomed to repeating failed history if left to fight this battle in isolation. The whole idea of Start School Later, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring safe, healthy school hours, is that we can address this issue more effectively by joining forces among health professionals, educators, policymakers, and community advocates working to raise awareness at local, state, and national levels.
For most of us, even us “sleep evangelists,” sleep often gets bumped to bottom of the priority list. This is partly because we live in a culture that equates sleep with laziness, weakness, and apathy. It is also because sleep itself makes us feel vulnerable and takes us out of the action. But simply reminding ourselves that sleep is not a luxury, but a necessity as vital as eating and breathing, is a great way to bump sleep up on anyone’s list of priorities.
That said, it’s equally important to remember that many of us cannot get close to enough sleep no many how hard we try. This is because not all health matters are under personal control. For example, many people work jobs that conflict with their sleep needs and patterns. Even more troubling are the many adolescents whose school clocks require waking before sunrise. Many middle and high schools today start the day in the 7 am hour, with buses starting as early as 5:15 a.m. – hours that require 16-year-olds to be sound asleep by 8 or 9 p.m. to get the 9 or so hours of sleep that most of their growing brains and bodies need. Even teenagers with impeccable sleep hygiene cannot possibly get close to enough sleep with these hours.
If we want our children – and teenagers are still children – to get the sleep they need for optimal health and learning, we can’t just work on ourselves. We also need to work on our communities to get them to set sleep-friendly, developmentally appropriate school hours. Families should certainly resolve to ensure reasonable bedtimes. But their resolutions will mean little until communities resolve to ensure reasonable wake times.
I would challenge you to think about how can you change the culture in your community to make sleep a priority, and not an afterthought. If you are a manager, make sure that you have sleep friendly policies for your employees. Model good sleep behaviors (like getting 30 more minutes of sleep every night) for your friends and your family, especially your children. I would love to hear your ideas on how to make sleep a priority in your community, and in our culture.