Lauren Davenport, Junior Physiologist at AXA Health

Sleep tips for all ages


27 April 2020

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Sleep is vital for our health and wellbeing, but one in three of us simply aren’t getting enough. And it’s more important than you might think. According to the NHS, regular poor sleep puts you at risk of serious medical conditions, including obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes – and it shortens your life expectancy.

The amount of sleep we need varies depending on our age, but in adults the recommended amount we should be aiming for each night is 7–9 hours

In this article AXA Health Junior Physiologist, Lauren Davenport explains how sleep requirements change over time, and how making lifestyle changes can help improve both the quantity and quality of the sleep you get at different life stages.

Why is sleep important and how much do we need?

We spend a third of our lives asleep and it’s a vital part of maintaining good physical and mental health. Poor sleep can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes, anxiety, depression, and a decreased immune function.

Sleep is controlled by our circadian rhythm, or ‘body clock’, which uses light and dark to regulate body temperature, hormones and metabolism, to promote sleep and alertness through a 24-hour cycle. During the day, light suppresses the hormone melatonin, promoting alertness, but at night, when it‘s dark, melatonin increases and our core body temperature drops, which promotes sleep.

The amount of sleep we need varies from person to person and also depends on our age. As a guide, the National Sleep Foundation recommends the following:

New-borns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours

Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours

Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hour

Pre-schoolers (3-5): 10 -13 hours

School age children (6-13): 9-11 hours

Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours

Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours

Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours

Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours.

Better sleep for children

Children require more sleep than adults, as sleep is important for growth. One of the most important aspects for good sleep in children is establishing a consistent, relaxing bedtime routine. It’s a good idea for children to engage in activities such as reading, writing or drawing, one to two hours before bed, and avoid TV or video games, which can be overly stimulating.

Better sleep for adolescents and teens

Staying up late and having difficulty getting up the next morning might be a familiar memory from your teenage years, or if you’re currently living with a teenager. But did you know that there’s a scientific reason for this?

During adolescence and the teenage years there’s a natural shift in our body clock. Melatonin is released later, so teenagers feel more alert later at night and, in the morning, are fighting against raised melatonin levels, which makes it difficult to wake up.

Lack of sleep can limit concentration and learning, increase aggression, cause unhealthy eating habits, and may even contribute to acne. The World Health organisation found one in four 11-15-year olds in the UK aren’t getting enough sleep.

While it can be difficult to fit in school, homework, after school activities and a social life, teens must still try to prioritise sleep. You can’t change your body clock, but these lifestyle tips could help make falling asleep easier.

  • Establish a regular sleep and wake-up routine and try not to waver too far from this schedule at the weekend. If you need to shift your bedtime, do so gradually over a few nights instead of all at once.

  • Avoid highly stimulating activities, such as homework, exercise, TV and social media for a few hours before bed time. If you do something relaxing every night, such as taking a bath or reading, this will help signal to your body that it’s time to sleep.

  • Keep your bedroom cool, quiet and dark and try to keep it for sleep only, so try and do your homework or engage in social media elsewhere in the house.

  • Write down anything that’s stressful or worrying you before bed, or talk to someone you trust about any problems or concerns you may have, so those things are less likely to keep you awake at night.

  • Try to do at least an hour of physical activity a day, but avoid vigorous exercise later on in the evening as this can impact your sleep.

Better sleep for adults and the working population

Sixteen percent of the working population in the UK regularly sleep for less than 6 hours a night. We know that a chronic lack of sleep can increase our risk of a number of serious health conditions and increase risk of mortality by 13%. And while you can try and catch up on the occasional bad night’s sleep, getting a good amount every night, or every 24 hours if you’re a shift worker, is best.

Everyone is different. Some people can thrive on seven hours, while other people may need nine. If you often feel tired during the day or find it difficult to concentrate, you may not be getting enough sleep.

However, there are things that adults and the working population can do daily to improve our sleep.

  • Routine: Try to get into a regular, relaxing bedtime routine. If you know what time you must get up in the morning, you can work out what time you should be going to sleep. If you’re currently sleeping later than this, gradually change the time you go to sleep, Also, try to avoid hitting the snooze button in the morning, as this can make you feel more sluggish when you do eventually get up.

  • Relax: Doing something relaxing every night before you go to bed, such as listening to relaxing music, taking a bath or reading a book will help your body know that it’s time for sleep. You might also want to try some mindfulness techniques if you find your stress levels are affecting your sleep.

  • Optimise your environment: Make sure your bedroom is cool, dark, quiet and comfortable. Avoid TV, computers, tablets and phones before bed, as these emit blue light, which suppresses melatonin. Keeping your hands and feet warm with socks or a hot water bottle increases heat loss from the skin, causing a drop in your core body temperature, which aids sleep.

  • Exercise: Regular physical activity can improve the quality and quantity of sleep you get and decrease stress. It raises body temperature, causing a bigger drop later, thus promoting sleep. However, it’s important to avoid physical activity a few hours before bed time as this will prevent body temperature dropping and may inhibit your ability to fall asleep. For lots of information, tips and inspiration to help you get moving more and stay motivated, take a look at our Exercise and fitness pages.

  • Nutrition: Avoid eating 2-3 hours before bed time to give your body time to digest the food before sleep. Dehydration decreases melatonin levels, so aiming to drink 1.5-2 litres of water, spread throughout the day, can help promote sleep. Try to avoid processed foods as these can supress serotonin (another hormone that promotes sleep) and increase your intake of foods such as nuts, bananas, pineapple and oranges, which have been shown to increase melatonin, so eating these throughout the day can help promote sleep. It’s also advisable to avoid alcohol, as while it can aid falling asleep, it also impairs deep sleep. Finally, try to avoid drinking caffeinated drinks in the afternoon to ensure sleep is not affected. Read our article for more information on how diet can affect your sleep.

Better sleep for older adults

Many of us find we sleep less as we get older; you may find it harder to fall asleep, or you may wake up more often during the night.

We may need less sleep, but in terms of ensuring good quality sleep, the above tips still apply. It remains important to maintain a regular sleep routine, ensure a calm and dark bed time environment as well as getting enough physical activity.

Click on the link for physical activity guidelines for older adults, for more information.

Napping can also help provide additional sleep that may have been disrupted during the night. A 20-30 minute nap can improve alertness and cognitive function; however, it‘s important to avoid napping for longer periods and naps later in the day, as these may impair your ability to fall asleep at bed time.

In summary

Sleep is vital for our health and wellbeing at any age, so it’s important to make sleep a priority, alongside diet, exercise and other aspects of your wellbeing and not let it be the last thing on your list once everything else is done.


Further resources

Ten top tips for a better night’s sleep – AXA Health
Mindfulness meditation tips – AXA Health
Can diet affect your sleep? – AXA Health
Sleep centre – AXA Health

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