Kids’ and teens’ sleep habits are an ongoing frustration for many parents. Teens especially often stay up into the wee hours of the night and then struggle to wake up for school on weekdays while tending to sleep the days away on the weekends. This can result in daily battles between many parents and kids.
But sleep is crucial to adolescents’ well being. School-age children from ages 6 to 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 preteens and teens are getting the necessary sleep.
During puberty teens’ circadian rhythm shifts. Younger kids may start feeling sleepy around 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. But during adolescence, it’s 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. before young adults start getting sleepy. This is called ‘sleep phase delay,’ which 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 a shortage of sleep.
So what’s a parent to do? In a perfect world, all high schools would adjust their 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 significantly benefit students.
For example, Kyla L. Wahlstrom et al. conducted a 3-year study of 9,000 students. Their findings, 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,” revealed high schools that start the day at 8:30 a.m. or later see several benefits.
First, 60 percent of these students were able to get at least eight hours of sleep per night during the school week. Those getting the extra rest also had lower rates of depression and caffeine use and were at decreased risk for substance use. These students showed better academic performance and had better achievement test scores as well while having a reduction in tardiness. Also, where schools shifted the start time to 8:55 a.m., the risk of traffic accidents involving teen drivers was significantly reduced.
You might find it worth talking to other parents about the teen sleep dilemma and the benefits of later school hours. Then create a concerted effort among parents to take the issue to the school board. Of course, this is a longer-term solution that won’t likely be implemented until the next school year—or the next.
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 might also be helpful to allow your teen to sleep in a little later on the weekends to catch up a little. But don’t let your adolescent sleep in too much later on the weekends. Otherwise, your teen will likely stay up much later as well. Then it’ll be much more difficult to fall back into an early bedtime routine during the week.
• Remove media from bedrooms. Televisions, computers, music, and cell phones serve as perfect distractions to keep kids awake late into the night. Have your teen remove all media from the bedroom before bedtime. If your teen usually uses a phone alarm, get an alarm clock instead.
• Restrict caffeine. Soda, coffee, and energy drinks late in the evening impede sleep. Set a curfew for these beverages two to three hours before bedtime.
• Keep the bedroom cool. Being too warm at night interrupts sleep. Set the thermostat to 3 degrees cooler at night than it’s set at 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 tend to be 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. Restrict the hours your teen can work both on weeknights and weekends during the school year to ensure they can get their z’s.
• Take a hot bath. This is a good way for your teen to relax before bed. It could 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 daytime, it might be a good idea to talk to your doctor. There are several sleep disturbances such as insomnia, sleep apnea, or a sleep movement disorder that can contribute to the problem. Some mental health conditions—such as ADHD, depression, and bipolar disorder—can also contribute to sleep disturbances.
Kimberly Blaker is the author of a kid’s STEM book, Horoscopes: Reality or Trickery? containing fun experiments to help kids understand the scientific method and develop critical thinking skills.