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Dyslexia & Sleep; New Research Findings

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

5-15% of the population are dyslexic, and of those people, 44% say they have a sleep problem, so what's happening? Katrin Jeffcock has recently published her MSc in Child Development on Sleep in Children with Dyslexia, and shared her findings with the Helen Arkell Dyslexia Centre this week.


How Much Sleep Do We Need?

The Joint Consensus Statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society shows the daily sleep requirements as follows:


Child (age 6-12) 9-12 hours

Teen (age 13-18) 8-10 hours

Adult (age 18-60) 7 hours

Older adult (60+) 7+ hours


We need our sleep; short term effects of sleep deprivation are reduced executive functioning and mental health, whereas long term effects significantly increase the risk of depression and serious health issues such as diabetes, heart failure, some cancers and stroke. The average sleep duration of dyslexic children was between 9 & 10 hours in Jeffcock's study, including those with clinical sleep problems.


The study used a questionnaire, filled out by parents of dyslexic children (dyslexia as the only diagnosis, rather than co-diagnosis with ASD or ADHD for example). Results showed a high rate of Sleep Onset Delay (difficulty getting to sleep) at a clinical level, and also a high rate of Sleep Anxiety and Daytime Sleepiness. 66% of children with dyslexia scored a clinical value on overall sleep quality. However the sleep problem did not seem to be connected to school; anxiety didn't appear to be the driver.


Atypical Sleep Behaviour


There are two categories of sleep; NREM or Non-REM deep sleep is for body rest and repair, whereas REM light sleep is when the brain is most active, in particular storing memories and other functions. An EEG of the dyslexic brain shows a different sleep cycle pattern to the non-dyslexic brain. The initial Non-REM deep sleep cycle, made up of slow delta brainwaves, is extended, and the amount of stage 4 deep sleep for mental recovery increased; there is also less REM sleep and instead the brainwaves are similar to those experienced during the day as if awake. The rapid, rhythmic brain wave activity known as sleep spindles were also shown to happen in different places in the brain.


Different Hormone Reactions


A normal pattern of hormones shows a spike of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the morning, and a spike of melatonin, the sleep hormone, in the evening. However, in dyslexic people, the curve of both hormone secretions is much flatter, resulting in a lower sleep drive (the signal to go to sleep) and circadian rhythm (the wake drive).



What Can I Do To Help My Teen?


Recommendations are based on good sleep hygiene, with at least an hour of no screens before bed and regularity ie going to bed at the same time 7 days a week. Exercise is also beneficial for sleep drive. Soothing smells, especially lavender, is helpful too as it calms the activity in the limbic brain.


Jeffcock does not recommend melatonin as there are no studies on the long term side effects and we already know that the hormone affects the onset of puberty. Likewise, power naps are not necessarily beneficial as they can reduce the sleep drive, making it harder to get to sleep; however they may be useful for cognitive functioning.


In my role as therapeutic yoga teacher and holistic sleep specialist, I recommend calming breath work such as the drop breath or gentle ujjayi, then stretching out the major muscle groups at bedtime and a guided yoga nidra* to drift off to sleep to. As daylight is a key driver for our circadian rhythm, make sure you get an hour of direct sunlight in the morning (especially when changing timezones) and dim the lights as the light subsides outside. *Yoga nidra is similar to a guided body scan; it follows the cyclical nature of sleep patterns and if the same one is repeated daily, the listener can learn it, negating the need for a device in the bedroom.


If you are trying to change a teenager's habits, it's not going to be easy. He who doth protest may need it most. Social interaction is often late at night, so removing devices can be contentious. Matthew Walker, author of "Why We Sleep" advocates regularity, so make your rules and stick to them. You may only be asking for 1 hour's less screen time a night but you'll need to be clear about the facts of sleep deprivation and benefits of good sleep in order to get compliance. Good luck and let me know how it goes!


For more information on dyslexia, go to helenarkell.org.uk

Nicky offers a range of sleep solutions for adults and teens. Book a discovery call to find out more.



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