Fighting fatigue as a dental student

Student members and our DDU advisers offer their advice on how to establish a good work/life balance – before fatigue takes hold.

Occasionally missing lectures or submitting work late may not be a huge deal for many new undergraduates. But it's different for dental students, who are effectively starting their professional career.

The GDC expects you to show "commitment to the work necessary to become a competent and professional practitioner," and it's often the case that dental students feel driven to keep up with their peers and meet their own high standards. But while some pressure can be motivational, it's a mistake to sacrifice your sleep to stay ahead.

There's plenty of evidence to suggest that sleep deprivation has an adverse impact. This recent study of dental undergraduate students in Brazil found a correlation between poor quality of sleep and lower academic performance, but there's also the risk of serious mental and physical health problems.

We don't think that feeling constantly tired should be the price you pay to become a dental professional, so what can you do to avoid falling into unhealthy sleeping patterns at dental school?

Burn off that adrenaline

"It's important to be aware of the support services available and for dental students to support each other with the pressures of work and issues caused by family, finances and relationships. I also found playing sport helpful (rugby really helped burn off excess adrenaline) and sharing a house for two years with veterinary and engineering students who could give me a different perspective on things."

James Kingham, DDU adviser

Pair up with a friend

"During my first year, I found it very hard to concentrate in noisy halls of residence, especially towards the end of the academic year, when most other students seemed to finish their exams weeks before we did. To combat this, I used to either go to the medical school library or pair up with a fellow dental student and revise together at her hall, both of which were quieter.

"In the six months leading up to finals we had constant assessments, which was exhausting, so I took regular forced rest from revision by doing exercise classes at the University gym. Not only was this good for my overall wellbeing, but I also enjoyed the time out away from study and was more focused on my return to it."

Sarah Hartridge, DDU adviser

Set up a routine

"When exams and assignment deadlines are looming, students can find themselves working late into the night, but using a study planner or diary can sometimes help them pace their academic workload and balance work/life commitments.

"My tips for getting enough sleep are to establish a routine, reduce screen time before bed, have your bedroom at a comfortable temperature and keep relaxation spaces away from study spaces, if possible.

"Try to avoid things that can affect sleep, including caffeine and alcohol, and eat healthily. Set aside time for self-care and build relaxing activities into your routine like meditation, yoga and exercise.

"Finally, become part of a community of practice and make the most of pastoral care offered by your dental school."

Jo-Anne Taylor, DDU adviser

Give yourself time to switch off

"Like a lot of students, I found the start of the BDS course a bit overwhelming with the 9-5 lectures, coursework, labs to prepare for and so on. I think a lot depends on your ability to process stress and organise your time and that can be tough in year one. Having good tutors helped us understand the importance of organisation, as well as moral support from other students.

"Personally, I found it helpful to switch off in my free time by seeing friends from home and from different courses so I could come back to dentistry on Monday morning feeling refreshed. Some students have formed study groups, which was helpful for revision, and it allowed them to air any negative feelings and seek support. I've also seen posters for yoga courses too, which is another good way for people to relieve stress."

Joey Brett, final year student at Bristol Dental School

Tips for sleeping soundly

Dr Michael Farquhar is a consultant in paediatric sleep medicine at Evelina London Children's Hospital, part of Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust, and educates healthcare professionals on the importance of sleep.

Here's Dr Farquhar's advice for ensuring you get good quality sleep.

  • Create a regular sleep routine to figure out how much sleep you need to function. Adults typically need seven to eight hours' sleep each night.
  • Keep well-hydrated and stick to a regular eating pattern. Junk food and alcohol have been linked to lack of sleep.
  • Don't depend on caffeine to get you through the day, as it can affect sleep quality and duration for up to six hours. That said, drinking caffeine before a short breaktime nap can help you wake up feeling refreshed.
  • If you can, try to 'bank' sleep if you're expecting to work late over an extended period and then try to return to your normal sleep routine as soon as possible.
  • If you're returning home late, a light meal is a good idea but don't be distracted by TV or other electronic devices as this can impact your sleep.
  • Create the best possible environment for sleep. The ideal is a cool, quiet, dark room and a comfortable bed.
  • Make time to relax and unwind as you usually would. Don't be tempted to let this slide - it should be just as important in your routine as study and work.
  • If you wake up during the night, try breathing exercises to help you relax and get back to sleep. If this doesn't work, try an activity that distracts your mind for a while - but avoid picking up electronic devices.
  • Get advice if you feel you're struggling to manage your work-life balance or you're feeling stressed and unable to sleep. Don't self-medicate as this could easily make things worse.

This page was correct at publication on 26/01/2024. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

Dr Michael Farquhar

by Dr Michael Farquhar

After graduating from Edinburgh University, Dr Michael Farquhar trained in general paediatrics, respiratory medicine and sleep medicine in the UK and Australia.

He is now a consultant at Evelina London Children's Hospital, part of Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust, working in the paediatric general sleep and hypersomnia clinics and the diagnostics sleep study service. He also educates healthcare professionals on the importance of sleep.

Michael is a member of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, The British Paediatric Sleep Association, the British Sleep Society, the European Sleep Research Society and the British Paediatric Respiratory Society.