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Sleep has been found to play a very important part in our lives, right from keeping us energy packed to apparently even tackling weight gain. Yet another study now highlights the effects of sleep on our well-being. The new study claims that modifications in sleep appear to predict the onset of physical changes that may be linked to puberty.

Alterations in children’s sleep patterns normally take place between the ages of 11 and 12 years. These, the study suggests could be evident prior to the physical changes that could be related with the beginning of puberty. The initial levels of sleep appeared to anticipate an augmentation in pubertal development over time. However no similar prediction was observed by the experts in the opposite direction.

Over the two-year course of the study, the results indicated that sleep onset was apparently delayed significantly. It was held up by an average of 50 minutes while sleep time also appeared to have lowered considerably by an average of 37 minutes. Higher sleep efficiency was noted among girls with fewer night wakings as compared to boys. The authors are of the opinion that the neurobehavioral changes associated with puberty may be seen in scope of sleep management than in changes in the body.

Professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University in Israel and lead author Avi Sadeh, D.Sc, mentioned that biological factors may have a telling influence on sleep during puberty. Psychosocial issues like school demands, social activities and technological distractions however could also result in progression of poor sleep habits. The author advices parents and educators who could play a key role in helping children comprehend the prioritization of sleep as they grow and mature.

“It is very important for parents to be aware of the importance of sleep to their developing teenager and to maintain their supervision throughout the adolescent years,” added Sadeh. “School health education should also provide children with compelling information on how insufficient sleep compromises their well-being, psychological functioning and school achievements.”

The authors believe that sleep-wake organization may undergo significant reorganization when youngsters transit into adolescence. A delayed sleep phase, that comprises of the tendency for later bedtimes and rise times; shorter sleep linked to increased levels of daytime sleepiness; and irregular sleep patterns that may involve sleeping very little on weekdays and sleeping longer during weekends to compensate for sleep loss could be the possible changes. Also extended wakefulness or sleep deprivation tolerance in adolescents is supposedly found to be much greater.

As part of the study, investigators analyzed data from a larger study on sleep and neurobehavioral functioning during the transition to puberty. Their examination included 94 children of which 41 were boys and 53 were girls. The children featured in the study were from regular classes of five different elementary schools in the Tel Aviv area between the ages of 10 years to 11 years. Each child was required to complete a range of questionnaires. This included the Sexual Maturation Scale (SMS) and the Puberty Development Scale (PDS) for pubertal development assessment as well. The children were further noted to be healthy minus any chronic medical or psychological problems.

Using a sleep diary, the sleep-wake patterns were noticed subjectively while an actigraph that the children wore on their wrist was used to assess sleep objectively. For two consecutive years, the assessment was repeated around the same time of the year. The second assessment was completed by 82 children and 72 children completed the third assessment.

Israel, the authors noted had a six-day school week, with Friday being the only day that was not followed by school. They discovered important differences between sleep on Friday nights and sleep on school nights just as anticipated. Sleep onset was delayed, sleep time was extended and sleep quality was poorer on Fridays as against school nights. Puberty status or gender was apparently not related to these differences. This could possibly convey that the tendency for weekend compensatory sleep could be relatively steady over the period of early adolescence.

A better and deeper understanding of the interrelationships between sleep and pubertal maturation is required according to the authors. It could offer new insights into the evolution of vulnerabilities for both behavioral and emotional health problems in early adolescence. This could consequently enhance efforts of prevention and early intervention.

The study has been published in the Dec.1, 2009 issue of the journal Sleep.