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Today's Family Magazine

Teens and sleep

Nov 25, 2019 11:52AM
By Kimberly Blaker

Teen sleep habits are an ongoing frustration and battle for countless parents.  Many teens stay up into the wee hours of the night.  Then they struggle to wake up during the week for school and sleep through the day on weekends.

But sleep is crucial to adolescents' well being.  School-age kids between ages 6 and 13 need nine to eleven hours of sleep per night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Teens, from ages 14 to 17, need eight to ten hours.  Yet, studies find only a small percentage of teens are getting the necessary sleep.

The problem, as experts point out, is that during puberty, teens' circadian rhythm shifts.  In earlier childhood, kids begin feeling sleepy around 8:00 or 9:00 pm.  But during adolescence, sleepiness doesn't set in until around 10:00 or 11:00 pm.  This is called 'sleep phase delay' and is likely caused by a delay in the release of the body's melatonin.

Sleep phase delay, however, isn't the only reason teens don't get enough sleep.  Increased demands on their time, ranging from additional household responsibilities and homework to extracurricular activities, socializing with friends, and media use also contribute to teens' shortage of sleep.

So what's a parent to do?  In a perfect world, all high schools would adjust the school day to begin and end at least an hour or so later each day.  This would make it easier for teens to get the sleep they need and would benefit students significantly.

To exemplify this, Kyla L. Wahlstrom et al. conducted a three-year study of 9,000 students.  The study, reported in "Examining the Impact of Later High School Start Times on the Health and Academic Performance of High School Students: A Multi-Site Study," found in high schools that start the day at 8:30am or later students reap several benefits.

First, 60% of the students were able to get at least eight hours of sleep per night during the school week.  Those gaining the extra rest also had lower rates of depression and caffeine use and were at lower risk for substance use.  These students had better academic performance and achievement test scores as well and a reduction in tardiness.  Also, in communities where schools shifted the start time to 8:55 am, teen traffic accidents were significantly reduced.

If you'd like to see later start times implemented at your teen's school, talk to other parents in your district about the teen sleep dilemma and share with them the benefits of later school hours.  Then create a concerted effort to take the issue up with the school board.  Keep in mind, this is a longer-term solution that won't likely be implemented until at least the following school year.  But once implemented, it could improve your teen's chance for success in future years and pave the way for other kids who will soon be entering high school.

Tips to help your teen get enough sleep

Fortunately, there are several things you can do right now to help ensure your teens get the sleep they need.

Set a regular bedtime routine.  Teens should go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time each day.  It can also be helpful to allow your teen to sleep in a little later on the weekends to catch up a bit.  But don't let your adolescent sleep in too late.  Otherwise, your teen will likely stay up later as well.  This makes it difficult to fall into an early bedtime routine during the week.

Remove media from bedrooms.  Televisions, computers, music, and cell phones serve as distractions to keep kids awake late into the night. Have your teen remove all media from the bedroom before bedtime.  If your teen uses a phone alarm, replace it with an alarm clock.

Restrict caffeine.  Soda, coffee, and energy drinks late in the evening impede sleep.  Set a curfew of at least two to three hours before bedtime for drinking these beverages.
Keep the bedroom cool.  Being too warm at night interrupts sleep. Set the thermostat to three degrees cooler at night than during the daytime.  Just make sure your teen has plenty of blankets to maintain comfort.

Eat some carbs before bed.  Have your teen eat a light, high carbohydrate snack before bedtime.  Fruit and white grains are generally high in carbohydrates.  Just make sure your teen doesn't overdo it since feeling stuffed can also make it difficult to fall asleep.

Practice relaxation.  Have your teen start winding down 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. Your teen should do something relaxing, such as read, listen to calm music, or watch a light TV show. Better yet, see if you can get your teen to practice meditation or yoga.

Restrict work hours.  Teen jobs often require working the late shift.  So during the school year, restrict the hours your teens can work both on weeknights and weekends so they can get their Zs.

Take a hot bath.  This is a good way for your teen to relax before bed.  It can also provide your adolescent an extra 20 minutes of sleep in the mornings by getting the bath or shower out of the way the night before.

Seek medical advice.  If you've tried everything and your teen still isn't getting enough sleep or feels sleepy during the day, talk to your doctor.  Several sleep disturbances such as insomnia, sleep apnea, or a sleep movement disorder can contribute to the problem.  Certain mental health conditions, such as ADHD, depression, and bipolar disorder, can also lead to sleep disturbances.