School, dance classes, rehearsals, homework, family activities—a million things can push your daily wake-up time earlier and your bedtime later. You might feel like getting a good night’s sleep is an impossible dream. But you shouldn’t just accept sleep deprivation as a fact of life. Sleep is one of the things that keeps your body at its best.
“Over time, poor sleep can limit your ability to learn and concentrate,” says Lauri Leadley, a sleep technologist and president of Valley Sleep Center in Arizona. “You can forget important information, like homework or choreography. Lack of sleep can lead to aggressive or inappropriate behavior, like yelling at friends or family. It can also cause you to eat too much, contribute to acne problems and even lead to illness.”
It takes conscious effort to improve your sleep habits, but if you decide to sleep smart, you’ll find yourself not only feeling better, but also performing better.
Most sleep experts agree that teens need eight to nine hours of sleep a night. The busier your schedule, the harder it can be to get those hours. But that’s not the only factor conspiring against you getting the sleep you need. According to Dr. Alon Avidan, director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, your circadian clock—the timekeeper in your brain that determines when you want to naturally wake up and fall asleep—shifts forward by about two hours during your teen years. That means you might not feel tired until after midnight, and you definitely won’t want to get up for school at 6 am.
Unfortunately, you can’t “make up” lost sleep—an eight-hour night is not the same as a six-hour night plus a two-hour nap later in the day. “For every hour of lost sleep per night, you need a full 24-hour period that includes good sleep to recover,” Avidan says. So how are you supposed to fit sleep into your busy life?
Set a schedule. Do your best to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day—even on the weekends. Sleeping until noon on Saturday will only confuse your body and make it harder to get up on Monday morning.
Strengthen your routine. Do the same activities, such as taking a shower or reading, before bed every night. “A nightly routine signals to your body and your brain that it’s time to sleep,” Leadley says.
Stop snoozing. “The more you press the snooze button, the more your brain falls back asleep,” Leadley says. “To feel more awake in the mornings, get moving right away.”
Stick to power naps. If you feel sleepy by mid-afternoon, it’s OK to take a nap—but keep it short. “With power naps, you get a burst of energy and alleviate sleepiness,” Avidan says. “If you go beyond 15 or 20 minutes, you’re more likely to fall into deep sleep and wake up groggy.”
Does the position you sleep in affect the quality of your sleep? It can—especially if you tend to snore when you sleep on your back. But for dancers, the proper sleep position can also set your body up to perform at its best, pain-free. “Sleeping in the right position can aid in recovery from injury and fatigue,” says Dr. Jamie Blau of Upper Westside Chiropractic in NYC.
“Dancers should try to sleep either on their sides or on their backs, with one pillow under their necks,” Blau says. “This encourages proper spinal and muscular alignment, which means less stress on the body overall.” Blau strongly discourages stomach sleeping. “When you sleep on your stomach, your neck is very rotated,” she says. “You can develop neck and shoulder pain that can eventually radiate down the arm. If you sleep half on your stomach with one leg up, you might also see lower back problems.”
If you’re a lifelong stomach sleeper, fear not: Bad sleep habits can be broken. “Use
pillows to prop yourself in the right position,” Blau advises. “For side sleep, put a pillow between your knees to keep yourself from rolling over. If you wake up on your stomach, shift onto your side or back again.” Your body will thank you in the morning.
Good sleep isn’t just about timing and position. Leadley recommends making your bedroom a “sleep haven”—cool, dark and quiet during sleep hours. “Avoid too much light and noise at bedtime, because those things stimulate the brain,” she says. “Even your computer or cell phone can make your brain think it’s time to wake up.” (So save the iPad and Kindle reading for daytime, and opt for easy-on-the-eyes books and magazines at bedtime.) Meanwhile, maximizing light exposure in the morning can make it easier to get out of bed.
“In general, don’t watch TV, talk on the phone, play video games or do homework in bed,” Avidan adds. “Use the bed only for sleep.” It’s crucial to teach your brain that your bed—and the bedroom environment as a whole—is a calm, restful place.
Despite all of these guidelines, sleep needs can vary from person to person. If you’re not sure what sleep strategies work best for you, try keeping a sleep diary. Jot down what time you go to bed, when you wake up and how (by alarm clock or naturally), your sleep position and how rested you feel. When you find a set of variables that work well together, stick with them. Better nights mean better days.