Alumni News

Why sleep should be your highest priority

Dr Helen Stallman

Senior Lecturer, Centre for Sleep Research
School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy
Dr Helen Stallman

Getting sound, uninterrupted, sleep for seven to nine hours each night is incredibly important for healthy adults to function at their best. Unfortunately, most get too little. Dr Helen Stallman explains how to get a better night’s rest and why sleep should be everyone’s highest priority.

“If you are going to do one thing well in your life, it should be sleep,” says Dr Stallman.

“Our memory, mood, capacity to learn and how we function is all affected by how well we sleep.

“The ideal number of hours is different for everyone, but generally a healthy adult needs seven to nine hours each night to function properly.”

Most adults don’t get enough sleep, particularly in our current environment. With the rise in technology, we now have devices and entertainment to distract us all hours of the night. To have better sleep, Dr Stallman recommends creating a nice and calming environment that promotes sleep.

“If your brain associates your bed with a wide range of activities then it will be harder for you to sleep well.

“Remove the TV from the room, don’t eat in bed, and make sure your mobile phone and other electronic devices are out of the bedroom.”

Like many of us, stress or having a busy brain full of ideas can make it difficult to even fall asleep in the first place.

“If you are worrying about something, I suggest keeping a notebook next to your bed to record thoughts or plans. It will allow your mind to let go of that thought and pick it up again when you are awake the next day.

“If you are stressed, try mindfulness as a strategy. This means focusing on the moment and the now. Bad thoughts can take you on a long journey and stop you mind calming down to fall asleep. Try calming your mind by just noticing your breathing or create a calming, pleasant scene in your mind. Walk yourself through this scene very slowly to relax.

“Also, don’t take sleeping tablets – unless prescribed by a medical professional – as they disrupt your sleeping architecture and won’t help you sleep better in the long-term.”

During the day, a couple of small changes to your routine can also help you have better sleep.

“It’s best not to have any caffeine after 12pm, don’t eat after 7pm or drink alcohol. People who are having trouble sleeping shouldn’t nap during the day either as this can affect your sleep at night.”

“Ultimately, the best trick to reset your clock is to go camping for two weeks and you will get your sleeping pattern back. There are no distractions and you will be encouraged to sleep by the night sky and wake up when the sun comes up.”

It is very common for parents to have children sleeping poorly during the night – waking up at all hours and not wanting to go to bed in the first place. Dr Stallman recommends parents instilling strict bedtimes and routines.

“Children need sleep routines and they love to push boundaries. If they are sleeping in their own room and continue getting up during the night, just put them straight back to bed and don’t give them any attention or engage in a conversation. Keep repeating this.

“It is also really important to have a wind down routine before bed so their brains learn that sleep is coming. This could be by brushing teeth, reading a book together, and then putting them to bed.”

Dr Stallman also researches the fascinating behaviour of sleepwalking. Sleepwalking is one of a number of behaviours that can occur during deep sleep, also known as the Non-REM period of sleep. Behaviours include talking, sitting up, making odd body movements, or even getting up and walking around.

Up to 10% of people sleepwalk in their lifetime. However this number may be higher, as sleepwalkers usually don’t remember doing it, so it cannot be reported unless someone sees them.

“Troublingly, 90% of sleepwalkers have had bruises and other injuries as they misperceive their environment. Sleepwalkers can also cause injury to their partners with their flailing limbs. On rare occasions, sleepwalkers have been violent towards others, thinking they were responding to someone threatening.

“It is not yet known why some people sleepwalk and others do not. If you or someone in your family is a sleepwalker there are some things you can do to help minimise the risk of injury, including keeping furniture in the same place and not having things left on the floor that could be a tripping hazard.

“If someone in your home is sleepwalking, it is best to just tell them to go back to bed, or gently lead them to their room.

“It was once thought you shouldn’t wake a sleepwalker because it could harm them – there is no evidence for this. But because they are in the deepest stage of sleep, they will be confused and perhaps irritable if woken.”

Dr Stallman’s best piece of advice is to prioritise sleep.

“Sleep should be your number one priority – work the rest of your life around it.”

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