As the mother of a 5 week old infant, I’m re-discovering how important sleep is. I’m no stranger to sleep deprivation. Three years of Pediatric residency training and 3 more years of medical training to specialize in teen health led to many nights when my head never touched a pillow. We’ve blogged on the topic of sleep for teens in the past but this past month has prompted me to write about the importance of sleep once again.

During the summer months, teens have likely been catching up on sleep. With the freedom to wake up when they want to (or when their body prompts them to wake) is a luxury for most teens these days. Middle and high schools start as early as 7:15am which translates to waking up at 6am or even earlier just to shower, get dressed, and hopefully grab a bite to eat for breakfast. Now the early morning starts wouldn’t be so terrible except for the fact that most teens are going to be quite late. After finishing homework, chores, dinner, extra-curricular activities (sports, drama club, religious activities, etc), most of the teens I know are finally lying down to sleep around 11pm. They often spend another hour texting friends, looking at Tumblr or Facebook, or watching TV. If we do the math, this is only about 6 hours of sleep a night. The average teen needs more like 10 hours of sleep to be well rested.

So what’s the big deal? Adults run on less than 6 hours of sleep all the time? Well, a teen’s brain is still developing. Our brains don’t fully reach maturity until age 25 or so. Also, teens go to school. This requires 6 hours of concentration in a classroom as well as the energy to navigate the complex social structures of high school and middle school. Add in sports, homework, and driving home, and now the teen needs to concentrate on a lot more things as well. Lack of sleep can affect all of these things.

Not getting enough sleep can lead to poor concentration, irritability, and use of stimulants to stay awake. These can in turn lead to poor school performance, isolation from peers, depression, and possibly dropping out of school. This may sound extreme, but we see teens in our Adolescent Medicine Clinic every week that have had all of these things happen. When they’re asked about sleep, all will tell you they don’t get enough.

So what can parents do?

  • For starters, model good sleep hygiene. Turn off electronic devices 30-60 minutes before going to bed (I know this is hard! I personally am attached to my iPhone).
  • Have a bedtime routine. Teach your body that it’s time for bed by doing the same thing each night, even on weekends. This can be as simple as brushing your teeth or taking a shower and turning off the TV.
  • Try to go to bed and wake up around the same time each day, including weekends. Sleeping in on weekends is ok, but if your teen usually wakes up at 7am on weekdays, try not to have them sleep until 1pm on weekends.
  • Avoid caffeine after 12 noon. Caffeine comes in all different forms, from a cup of coffee to a Cola. I don’t recommend teens drink caffeinated beverages, but to encourage adequate sleep at night, they should definitely avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening.
  • Leave the bed just for sleeping. Avoid doing homework, surfing the internet, watching TV, and eating in the bed. Find a different spot in the bedroom for doing things like homework or texting.

If you’re worried your teen has a problem with their sleep, such as snoring loudly or insomnia, talk with your teen’s doctor. There are medical reasons that teens can have difficulty sleeping and they should be treated.