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Fri, 03 May 2019

Do our sleep patterns really change as we age?

As we age, our bodies change and our responsibilities evolve, so it’s natural that the amount of sleep we need but actually manage to get will vary, and it’s a topic that remains at the forefront of many discussions.

The Guardian recently published a comprehensive article discussing sleep and raised some interesting points about our sleeping habits and why our sleep patterns change as we age. Some important points were raised in the article which we’ve summarised below, along with some helpful tips about the importance of getting a good nights kip.

Sleep Cycle

As we age, our attitude towards sleep can alter. Some will say sleep is precious while other state sleep is for the weak, but it’s definitely a good start to be aware of the sleep cycle and how sleep helps us function successfully.

Stage 1 - The sleep cycle consists of 3 main stages. The first stage can also be referred to as the transitional and non-REM phase. It is at this point that you will go from feeling drowsy and drifting in and out of sleep to falling into a light sleep. The heart rate will begin to slow down and the core temperature will decrease.

Stage 2 - As we drift off into the second stage, we enter the deep stages of sleep, also known as slow wave or NREM phase of sleep. Here, the brain waves slow down to what is known as delta waves with the occasional faster waves. Blood pressure will drop, breathing becomes much deeper and rhythmic and there is no eye movement. At this point, the body is completely stationary and if woken up whilst in this phase of sleep, we often feel disorientated for a short period of time upon waking up.

This stage of sleep is very beneficial for our body and our minds and it is at this point that hormones are released that boost both growth and appetite control. The amount of blood flow to the muscle increases, which delivers healing oxygen and nutrients.

Stage 3 - Here we enter the only stage that promotes rapid eye movement (REM) which is not like any other state of sleep because the mind is exploding with activity. The eyes tend to move in every direction and the mind is stimulated in order to support sharp and quick functioning throughout the day. However, at this stage, the body is momentarily paralysed.

Being aware of the different sleeping cycles can help understand more about how our sleeping patterns change as we grow older.

Babies

At birth, we pretty much sleep through our early years. It’s at this age that we need sleep to help to develop our sleeping habits to prepare our body clock to synchronise it to the surrounding world. Babies do not go through the sleep stage like adults, they start their night time in an active state of sleep which is almost like REM sleep, and then can go into a state of quiet sleep.

As a baby’s sleep cycle will differ a lot to adults, it can be a challenging time for parents to deal with their newborn’s sleeping pattern and there is a lot of information about nowadays about how to cope with this difference, especially when the effects of sleep deprivation begin to appear.

Toddlers/Children

At this age, children are moving into pre-school and then into school and though the number of hours sleep required decreases significantly from 14-17, it is still important that children get a good quality night’s sleep to support their development.

The balance of sleep changes from 50% REM-like sleep as babies to around 25% by the age of 2. REM sleep is abundant at this age as a child's mind is the most plastic and it is the age at which connections are formed rapidly to help the brain to develop and support the developing visual system. It is therefore vital that children still continue to get enough quality sleep!

There was a study done by Silentnight and the University of Leeds which revealed that 36-percent of primary school age children get only 8 hours of sleep or less a night which is significantly less than it should be. Developing a routine at this age can ensure a child continues to get a good nights sleep.

Teenagers

The teenage years is where you will find that the pattern of sleep changes drastically, sometimes moving by as much as 2 hours later. Factors such as puberty, social exhaustion as well as mental health are linked to this change. A study that was published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered that 50% of children between the ages of 11-13 did not get the recommended hours of sleep a night.

However, at this age, sleep is still as important as it can help with development as well as dealing with everyday stresses.

Dr Nerina, a sleep specialist at Silentnight, has spent over 25 years as a sleep and energy expert and advises that it is important to try and limit the amount of time teenagers spend on their digital devices to help them switch off from the outside world. She also recommends a healthy diet and eating breakfast daily as this can help boost both the serotonin and melatonin hormones which are vital for a good night’s sleep.

Adults

By the time we reach our 20’s and are considered ”adults”, the amount of sleep we manage to get seems to increase in comparison to our teenage years and our sleeping patterns tend to fluctuate less.

However, despite being recommended to get 8 hours of sleep, this is becoming difficult to achieve due to increasingly stressful lifestyles, health issues and social reasons.

Dr Nerina advised that by implementing a number of small changes, adults are more likely to be able to get the recommended 8 hours of sleep a night. This includes:

  • Reducing caffeine and alcohol consumption,
  • Turn off electrical devices and wind down
  • Controlling breathing and doing breathing exercises before bed
  • Eating meals at the right time, especially breakfast which regulates melatonin production
  • Ensure a calm zone to wind down in before bed

Though our sleeping patterns change throughout the years, it is easy to see that if we can manage our ever-evolving lifestyles, getting a quality nights sleep might not be as hard to achieve.