insomniaSleep. Such an elusive thing to have enough of! As parents, we’re juggling work, family, and personal obligations. Sleep often comes second to the other tasks that need to be accomplished during the day. Teens in our country are also struggling to be productive and find the balance between sleep and obligations. Unfortunately, US teens are not getting enough sleep and this can have consequences.

There are many reasons why sleep may be elusive for adolescents. They may have extracurricular committments such as work, homework, sports, clubs, youth groups or all of the above. Or they may have poor sleep hygiene and spend their time on social networking sites, texting with friends, watching movies, or listening to music. If they aren’t sleeping enough at night, they may feel so exhausted during the day that they take long naps, which further disrupts sleep patterns. Middle and high school start times are quite early, so it’s not out of the norm to hear my patients describe waking up at 5am to get ready to catch a bus or ride to school. Nor is it abnormal to hear them going to bed after midnight on school days. These patterns can have negative effects on health including:

  • poor eating habits
  • obesity
  • mood disturbance
  • poor concentration (drop in grades)
  • lack of motivation
  • compensatory behaviors including caffeine consumption or stimulant use

For teens, getting less than 8 hours of sleep a night is associated with a decrease in satiety (leading to over eating and obesity),  increased alcohol and substance use, and a 3 fold increase in thoughts of suicide. A sleepy teen who drives may be at risk for an accident and a teen who needs to stay awake to study make be at risk for stimulant abuse.

The American Academy of Pediatrics advocated for later school start times last Fall in order to help teens get more sleep. So how much sleep is actually recommended for teens? The answer: 8.5-9.5 hours. That’s quite a bit and most teens in the US aren’t getting nearly that much. A National Sleep Foundation poll found that 87% of high school students are not getting enough sleep.

Now that we know teens aren’t getting enough, how can parents help? Here are some sleep tips:

  • Have a routine – aim to go to bed and get up around the same time each day. This helps our brain release chemicals, such as melatonin, at regular intervals and keeps circadian rhythms consistent. Having a routine can improve satiety and hunger signals as well, which aids in maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Get regular exercise
  • Try to keep a schedule – get homework done earlier, keep a calendar of events, and don’t sign up for things that aren’t enjoyable (unless required, such as algebra) and make sleep a priority
  • Turn off electronics – consider having a ‘central charging station’ where all electronics are plugged in and charged in an area outside of the bedroom (parents, this includes your cell phone and tablet too). Avoid using electronics including TV, cell phone, tablet, laptops in the hour before going to bed.
  • Avoid long naps – a 30 minute nap is ok, a 3 hour nap is not. It disrupts our body’s natural rhythm making us not feel sleepy when it’s time to go to bed
  • Make the bedroom a comfortable environment for sleep – this may include getting black out curtains for summer months, when daylight hours are long and keeping the room a comfortable temperature. Try to avoid doing activities like homework in bed. Use the bed for sleeping
  • Avoid caffeine in the afternoon or later if it’s consumed
  • Avoid alcohol as this disrupts sleep cycles (and there are so many other reasons teens should not drink alcohol!)

If your teen snores or has tried the above tips and is still having difficulty feeling well rested, consider meeting with a sleep specialist. Sleep issues such as obstructive sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, sleep walking, and even nightmares may need treatment by a medical professional.

Here are additional resources on sleep for teens:

Seattle Children’s Hospital Sleep Disorder Resources

Insufficient Sleep in Adolescents and Young Adults – an update from the AAP

The National Sleep Foundation: