The Problem With Teenage Sleep Patterns — and 5 Things Parents Should Do

Teenagers need more sleep than adults. They often get less, however, because they’re hardwired to sleep on a later schedule. Many schools have changed their hours to better accommodate natural teenage sleep patterns, but more than 40 percent of public high schools start class before 8 a.m., reports The Washington Post. The result is widespread sleep-deprivation among teens.

“We all have a biological clock that tells us when to go to sleep and wake up, and that clock shifts with age,” said Dawn Peters, MD, a pediatrician at Alewife Brook Community Pediatrics, a Lahey Health practice in Arlington, Massachusetts. “Younger kids tend to wake up at 5 or 6 a.m., even if they went to bed late, but those circadian rhythms shift during puberty. Teenagers often find it difficult to fall asleep before 11 p.m. or to wake up before 8 or 9 a.m.”

So how much sleep do teenagers actually need, and how can parents help them get it? Read on for some teenager-specific tips for better sleep.

Is Your Teenager Sleep-Deprived?

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that teenagers (13 to 18 years old) sleep between 8 and 10 hours a day. Yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost 73 percent of high school students don’t get enough sleep on school nights.

Dr. Peters said this chronic sleep-deprivation can affect a teenager’s mood, grades and long-term health.

“It can make them more irritable, more aggressive or even depressed,” she said. “They’re more likely to engage in drinking and other dangerous activities. They have trouble paying attention at school and remembering things. They might fall asleep in class, or worse, while driving,” she said. “Sleep-deprivation can lead to obesity, and it affects your immune system, so they’re more likely to get sick or to get injured while playing sports.”

Dr. Peters suggested parents watch out for these warning signs of sleep-deprivation:

  • Sudden changes in mood or behavior

  • Symptoms of depression

  • Difficulty waking up in the morning

  • Regularly arriving late to school

  • Falling asleep in class

  • Taking long naps after school and sleeping until midafternoon on the weekends

When it comes to tips for better sleep, Dr. Peters suggests setting rules about bedtime with a collaborative discussion, keeping in mind what’s realistic for teenage sleep patterns.

“You can tell them to go to sleep earlier,” she said. “But that’s just not in line with what their bodies (and the hormones that regulate sleep) are telling them.”

What’s the better approach?

1. Have a Discussion About Sleep

Dr. Peters suggested that parents do some research and share that information with their teens.

“Sit down and talk to them, and say, ‘This is what I read. This is the advice that’s given about sleep for teens. Here’s some research about how caffeine affects your sleep and how technology affects your sleep. Here are some places you can look for proof that I’m not just talking off the top of my head and that this is something other people are recommending.'”

2. Help Them Schedule Sleep

Early school start times aren’t the only thing that interferes with teenage sleep patterns. Their overly busy schedules factor in, too.

“Look at their schedule together,” said Dr. Peters. “This is what your week looks like. When are you going to do your homework? What activities are essential that you really want to be able to do, and then how are we going to fit enough homework time and sleep time with those activities? Is there anything we can cut from the schedule to ensure you get enough sleep during the week?”

3. Help Them Stay on Schedule

Sleeping late on the weekends or taking long naps after school can interfere with their sleep schedule. Dr. Peters suggested waking them up.

“When they sleep until 2 p.m. on the weekends, it’s hard to go back to the normal routine on Monday. On weekdays, a little power nap — 15 to 20 minutes after school — is reasonable. But some kids come home and sleep for hours and then can’t fall asleep at night.”

4. Limit Screen Time Before Bed

Dr. Peters suggested parents restrict technology use after 11 p.m., and an hour before bed if teens have trouble sleeping.

“Technology affects our sleep, can cause insomnia and can make it more difficult to fall asleep. Teenagers are on their phones and computers all the time. Sometimes they’re getting texts all through the night. So it’s important to make those rules — not in a punitive way, but as a way to help them stay happy, healthy and safe.”

5. Call the Pediatrician for Backup

If teenagers still have trouble falling asleep at night or staying awake during the day, there could be an underlying medical condition, such as narcolepsy, insomnia, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, restless legs syndrome or sleep apnea.

Dr. Peters said, “If your kid can’t fall asleep, or if they’re regularly sleeping 12 hours or more and still seeming tired, check in with your pediatrician.”

If you suspect your teenager has a sleep disorder, make an appointment with Lahey Hospital & Medical Center’s Sleep Disorders Center, which can provide overnight diagnostic tests and leading treatments.

Having a teenager with different sleeping patterns can be frustrating when it becomes disruptive. Talk to your pediatrician and sit down with your child to make sure you’re approaching their sleeping patterns in a constructive, helpful way.

*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

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