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How Is COVID-19 Affecting Our Sleep?

Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on December 16, 2020

photo of boy sleeping with teddy bear otherFirst the good news: One year into the pandemic, we’re sleeping as much as, if not more than, we did before it started, new research shows. But the timing and -- for some groups -- quality of that sleep has changed radically, worrying some sleep specialists.

“We are seeing more people going to bed much later and waking up much later, and we have concerns that could have health consequences in the months and years to come,” says neurologist Alon Y. Avidan, MD, director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center.

One study of 1,619 preschoolers in China found that after stay-at-home orders were implemented, they went to bed 57 minutes later and woke up an hour and 52 minutes later. Because they napped less, they ended up sleeping about as much total as prepandemic. Surprisingly, they also resisted bedtime less and had fewer nightmares.

Another study, of 139 U.S. university students, found that after classes moved online in spring 2020, they stayed up about 50 minutes later each night, but ended up getting about a half-hour more sleep on average. Those who were the most sleep-deprived prepandemic got a whopping 2 more hours of ZZZs nightly.

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“It’s not all bad news,” says Judith Owens, MD, director of sleep medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital and senior author of the Chinese study.

For some families, she says, remote work schedules have allowed parents to spend more time with their children, a factor that could help them sleep more soundly. And for teenagers, who tend to naturally get tired later than adults, remote schooling has provided a rare opportunity to sleep in.

“Because they are more likely to get enough sleep, and the timing of that sleep is more in line with their natural circadian rhythms, adolescents may actually be benefiting,” Owens says.

However, not everyone is sleeping soundly. Youth with autism and ADHD, who tend to find comfort in a set schedule, have been flooding Owens’s clinic complaining of sleep problems since quarantines threw those schedules into chaos.

While adults have been shown to be sleeping about 13 minutes more, they are increasingly struggling with nightmares and anxiety, Avidan says.

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He also worries about what will happen when patients who have been staying up until 1 a.m. and sleeping until 11 a.m. have to resume hitting the shower at dawn to make an 8 a.m. class or meeting.

And he notes that, regardless of age, chronic night owls tend to miss out on the many health benefits of early morning sunlight. Due to impacts on hormones and metabolism, they are also at greater risk of obesity, diabetes, and depression.

Your best bet, pandemic or not, they say: Shoot for 7 to 9 hours of sleep (more for children), pick a reasonable bedtime, and stick to it.

“We have known for a long time that, no matter your age, having a consistent bedtime is associated with more sleep and better sleep,” Owens says.

5 Tips for Better Sleep

1. Use light-blocking shades to keep your room dark.

2. Use a fan to keep your room cool.

3. Refrain from using electronics within 1 hour of bedtime (the blue light can suppress hormones that promote sleepiness).

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4. Get bright light in the morning (it promotes alertness).

5. Keep a regular schedule. Eat meals, get exercise, and go to bed around the same time each day.

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Sources

SOURCES:

Alon Avidan, MD, MPH, director, UCLA Sleep Disorders Center; professor, UCLA Department of Neurology, Los Angeles.

Journal of Sleep Research: “Sleep of preschoolers during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak.”

Cell Press: “Sleep in university students prior to and during COVID-19 Stay-at-Home orders.”

Judith Owens, MD, MPH, director, Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders; professor of neurology, Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, MA.

Cell Press: “Effects of the COVID-19 lockdown on human sleep and rest-activity rhythms.”

JAMA Network: “Current and COVID-19 Challenges With Childhood and Adolescent Sleep.”

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