Auburn sleep expert offers advice on better sleep

January 10, 2020 @ 9:05 a.m.

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Mona El-Sheikh is the Leonard Peterson Inc. Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies in the College of Human Sciences at Auburn. She is world renowned for her research on sleep and adolescents’ development. El-Sheikh has been on faculty at Auburn since 1990, first in the Department of Psychology and then the Department of Human Development and Family Studies. Between falling back an hour in November for daylight saving time and people making quality sleep a goal in 2020, El-Sheikh shares her expertise.

With the recent time change making night come earlier in the winter day, how are people to cope and get into a new rhythm for proper sleep?

Related to the regularity suggestion, our bodies function best with a regular rhythm of sleep and wake periods. When traveling across several time zones, we experience jet lag. Adapting to changes to and from daylight savings time is a case of mini jet-lag. A one-hour change does not disrupt one’s circadian cycle drastically, but some people are affected more than others. If it has taken you several days to adapt to changes in the past, one thing you can do is set your own schedule to go through the change more gradually. Let’s say you routinely go to bed at 10 p.m. In the fall, time “falls back” one hour, but you may not feel ready to sleep at the new 10 p.m., which your body is sensing as only 9 p.m. You could try to go to bed a few minutes earlier in the days leading up to the change. For jet lag, the recommendation is to expose yourself to early morning light to reset your circadian cycle. If you routinely get up at 7 a.m., that was the time of sunrise in Auburn on Nov. 2. The next day, the sun rose at 6 a.m., so to get as much early morning light, you would need to get up a few minutes earlier over the preceding days. Times of morning light and twilight establish our body’s diurnal cycle. Adapting our sleep and wake schedules to those times are the keys to coping with the changes.

What advice or tips would you recommend for people who want to get better sleep in the new year and maintain it through 2020?

Every January, many individuals make resolutions for the upcoming year. These typically have to do with improvements they want to make related to their health and well-being. A resolution for improving sleep habits is one that many ought to consider. The overall goal is to make improvements in sleep habits that improve sleep duration, quality and regularity. Examples of specific goals are: (1) Establish a bedtime early enough to get sufficient sleep; (2) Decrease or eliminate caffeine and other stimulants especially during the afternoon and evening; (3) Evaluate and improve the bedroom environment. Are your pillow and bedding comfortable? Are you able to keep the temperature and humidity at a comfortable level? Is your bedroom dark and quiet enough?; (4) Decrease the frequency and duration of activities before bedtime that interfere with getting to sleep like watching TV or using social media; (5) Establish and maintain a relaxing bedtime routine. Changing sleep habits can be monitored and tracked with sleep diaries that can be found on the National Sleep Foundation website or ones that you can custom make for yourself.

What does your sleep research involve?

The core of my research mission is to understand factors that contribute to positive and negative outcomes in children, adolescents and young adults. We focus on several domains of outcomes, including cognitive functioning and academic achievement, behavioral and emotional problems and physical health. Ultimately, the knowledge that we gain will be used to help prevent problems in those domains or at least mitigate the damage caused by them.

What have you learned from your research? 

My projects have involved studying several large groups of different families from the community and following them over the course of many years (ages 7–23 years). We have been able to identify which factors present in childhood are related to problems that occur later in development. While there are many factors earlier in life that have been historically been found to relate to problems later on, we have discovered that the amount, quality and regularity of sleep play critical roles in either increasing risk of problems or protecting against those problems. One of our important discoveries is that poor sleep is especially associated with negative outcomes in children and adolescents in families of lower socioeconomic position. Conversely, when children and adolescents in those families get sufficient sleep, their good sleep serves as a protective factor against those negative outcomes. 

What advice do you have for children? For adults?

Our work, along with a large body of research by others, indicates that improving sleep has significant benefits. Improving sleep should help children and adolescents perform better academically, have better emotion regulation and better health. Improving sleep, like improving people’s nutrition and exercise, requires a multi-pronged approach. One area we emphasize is for parents to assess the quality of the physical environment for sleep. Ideally, it needs to be a place where one feels safe and secure, is quiet and dark, with a comfortable temperature and humidity. Besides the physical environment, we stress the importance of parental monitoring of such things as screen use in the evenings, consumption of caffeinated drinks and providing a regular comforting bedtime routine. Going to bed early enough to get sufficient sleep is important, especially for children and adolescents on school nights. And one recommendation deriving from our research is that regularity of bedtimes and wake times during the school week and even on weekends are extremely important. These suggestions apply equally to adults.

Mona El-Sheikh

Categories: Health Sciences


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