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Health & Safety

Sleep and the College Student

Jennifer See

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As a therapist, I talk about sleep.

A lot.

One of the things I ask my clients about at our first appointment, and a topic we return to during most future appointments, is sleeping patterns. Are they having trouble falling asleep, or staying asleep? How many hours do they average per night?

Sleep is crucial for our health, both physical and emotional. Most adults need between 6–10 hours of sleep per night, with eight the recommended amount to feel completely rested.

And then there is the college student.

A study conducted by the University of Georgia Health Center found that most college students get less than seven hours of sleep per night. In other words, not enough.

There many reasons this age group struggles to get enough sleep that have to do with the college lifestyle and also the "delayed circadian preference" of adolescents and young adults (i.e., they are naturally "night owls"). The bottom line is that lack of sleep takes a toll on both physical and mental health. Lack of sleep reduces cognitive performance, memory capacity and social competence. It also negatively affects our decision-making abilities.

Consequences of Sleep Loss for College Students

  • More illness, such as colds and flu, due to a lowered immune system
  • Feeling more stressed out
  • Increased weight gain and obesity
  • Lower GPA and decreased academic performance
  • Increased mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety
  • Increased automobile accidents due to “drowsy driving”
  • Decreased performance in athletics and other activities that require coordination

Ryan is a freshman at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and learning the hard way how difficult it is to regulate sleep far from home and without a parent forcing the issue. “In high school, you are on a way different schedule,” he said. “School starts at the same time every day, and most nights, you’re home at nine or ten. In college, you might have a class start at noon so you stay up way late and sleep late, then you take a nap. It really messes up your sleep schedule. There is no sleep schedule.”

Add parties, football games and activities on the weekends, and maybe a part-time job, and a student's schedule is further thrown. “There’s always something going on, and things start late,” Ryan said. “You end up on the weekends going to sleep at three or four a.m., or then going to eat and pulling an all-nighter.”

Arianna Huffington devotes an entire section of her book, The Sleep Revolution, to the problems of college students and the effects of their bad sleeping patterns. “The defining ingredients of college life — the pressure to perform and get good grades, the newfound freedom, the yearning to fit in socially, and the endless digital distractions — aren’t exactly a recipe for great sleep,” she writes. “Especially when you throw in other damaging habits that have become an accepted part of college life, like bingeing on energy drinks and alcohol.”

So how can you advise your student? What can they do to incorporate more sleep into 24 hours already packed with classes, studying, friends and activities? They can start by establishing sleep rituals. This is the perfect topic for when they are home over break!

Tips for Creating a Regulated Sleep Schedule

  • Limit alcoholic beverages before bedtime.
  • Have a comfortable mattress topper and bedding to entice sleeping.
  • Use earplugs and sleep masks if roommates are loud when they are trying to sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine 3–4 hours before bedtime.
  • Limit use of phone and electronics in bed or one hour before bedtime.
  • Exercise regularly (but not 2–3 hours before sleeping).
  • Track sleeping patterns using a Fitbit or other tracking device (seeing the numbers can make a student more aware of the extent of their sleep deprivation, and they can set goals to get more the next night).

As parents, keep the conversation going about the importance of sleep and your student’s individual sleeping patterns. Check in with them frequently and ask specific questions, such as, "How much sleep are you getting? Are you having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep? How much do you sleep during the day?"

And of course if they have a professor like the one at Baylor University who offered EXTRA CREDIT for getting a solid eight hours of sleep each night the week before the final exam (and, yes, the students who slept eight hours on average performed better on the exam), they should participate!

Ryan is working hard this semester to get more sleep. “I just feel better and function better when I feel rested,” he said. “My friends and I talk all the time about how we can’t be the best students we can be without it.”

Be aware that consistent lack of sleep or too much sleep can be signals of bigger issues, such as anxiety or depression. If that appears to be the case, encourage your student to seek help from a professional. Find more information about wellness and mental health in college here.
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Jennifer See, LPC, LCDC is a clinician in private practice in San Antonio, Texas. She sees individuals ages 10 and up and focuses on mental health and substance use and abuse issues. Jennifer is also the parent of two college students. Visit her website at and connect on social @jenniferseelpc.
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