Teen Sleep

Alarm clock
Old fashioned alarm clock on a yellow background.

Nothing is more frustrating than trying to wake up a child in order to get them to school or some other activity. While this is not a new issue to parents (who no doubt have ample experience trying to get a deeply asleep child out of bed) parents of teenagers complain quite a bit about their children not going to bed early enough and their child sleeping in too late. It turns out that these changes in sleep are not entirely the teen’s fault – the hormonal changes of puberty lead to a revised circadian pattern of sleep, with teens becoming sleepy later in the evening and sleeping later in the morning. But, just because biology is influencing the pattern of sleep doesn’t mean that parents can help their teen get enough sleep. Let’s start with a discussion of how sleep changes in adolescence and then turn to a discussion of social and behavioral changes that can be made to encourage easier mornings.

What makes us feel sleepy is the secretion of the hormone melatonin. Over the course of a day, melatonin rises and falls, usually in response to how much light there is around us. When melatonin is falling, we feel more awake. When melatonin levels rise, we feel sleepier (this is why taking supplemental melatonin has gained some popularity – artificially making melatonin rise can help a person feel tired).

As individuals move through puberty, the time when melatonin begins to rise (and make you sleepy) shifts later and later. By the time an individual finishes puberty, he or she will experience a melatonin rise about 2 hours later than what they experienced before puberty. Practically, this means that an adolescent is able to stay up a lot later than they used to before feeling tired. This is why most teens are up well past midnight, while parents tend to be passed out by 10 pm. (Note that the shift towards later bedtime begins to reverse in the early 20s, with us once again preferring an earlier bedtime than our teen years).

But to think of changes in adolescent sleep as story about hormones doesn’t tell the full story. Sure, teens may feel tired later in the day, but they also have lots of light-related activities to keep them entertained – and what teens are entertaining themselves with late in the evening is often a light-emitting device (Read: phone, TV, or computers). Couple the facts that most teens have access to these different sources of media and that parents are allowing teenagers to increasingly make their own decisions (including how to use this media), it’s a recipe for teens to want to stay up later. There is even some evidence that the preference for late bedtime has increased among teenagers in the past years, a finding potentially linked to increases in mass media exposure in the evening hours. From a common sense standpoint it makes sense – think back to when you were a teen. Would you rather go to sleep? Or stay up talking to your friends or being engaged with some form of media that everybody will be talking about at school the next day? Given the chance, most teens would choose the later (Most parents would rather go to bed.).

It’s not just that teens have a hard time going to sleep; they also have a harder time waking up in the mornings. Again, this is due to the changes in hormones linked to puberty. After puberty, melatonin levels are higher in the morning for teens after puberty then they were for teens before puberty. Practically, this difference in melatonin means that teenagers in the morning are drowsier and less alert after puberty than before. So not only is it hard for teens to get to sleep, but it is harder for them to wake up.

Aside from being frustrating for parents, decreased sleep during the teen years is a major health concern. Think of it this way – pre teens and teenagers need the same amount of sleep – about 9 hours a night. Online polls of child bedtimes during the school year suggest that most pre-teens go to bed around 9 pm. Most teens go to bed sometime between 11p.m. and 1 a.m. But in most school systems, school starts at the same time for both groups of teens. This means that teens who have gone through puberty are experiencing a huge decrease in the number of hours slept a night, making them in a chronic state of sleep deprivation. (Some classic studies of teenagers in the sleep lab show that youth who are in the later stages of puberty are so tired that they look identical to individuals with sleep disorders like narcolepsy in terms of how fast and frequently they can fall asleep.) Sleep deprived students have a hard time learning. Truly, the issue of lack of sleep of teens is a health issue and one that warrants serious concern from parents. We all want our child to be happy, focused, and ultimately successful. As adults we all know how hard it is to be happy and focused when you are chronically sleep deprived (remember those months after your little darling arrived and you were chronically sleep deprived? How happy, focused, and successful were you?).

This “sleep squeeze” as some authors have called it is part of the reason that schools have begun to shift start times for middle and high schools to later. Later start times can afford teens up to another hour of sleep. In fact, in 2016, Seattle public schools shifted middle and high school times back nearly an hour. To date, this is the largest public school system to adapt school schedule to fit with the research on teen sleep. Using a pre-post design, researchers found that students slept for 34 minutes longer each school day with the delayed start time. It was also true that the delay of school start time was associated with increases in GPA and had fewer absences from school. Surely, within your own school system, you can be an advocate for changing start times to help your teen.

Beyond starting a grassroots organization devoted to delaying school start times in your community, what else can you do to ensure your teen is getting adequate sleep? First, model good media behavior. That means everybody in the family needs to turn on the TV at a certain time and leave media (phones, computers, TV if possible) out of the bedrooms. Family “charging stations” for devices can be an effective tool, but only if both parents and children follow the rules. Second, as much as you can ensure your child has the latest possible morning wake-up time during their teen years. Does your child need to do a “daily double” for football or soccer or swim? Talk to coaches or other individuals to try to shift activities to better times. Third, use this as an opportunity to talk with your child. Sit down with your teen and explain what is happening to their body and their sleep. Tell them that it is normal to go to bed later (Tell them about the melatonin! Kids love hearing about their hormones). Explain that you want to make sure that they are getting enough sleep and develop a family plan to help them do so. Maybe it means negotiating no movies during the week, but allowing an extra hour of media use on the weekends. Perhaps it will mean no texting with friends after a certain time each night. Maybe it means making a plan with the families of the friends who your teen frequently texts at night – perhaps the community could agree to all shut off communication at a certain time. Each family will set different parameters. What’s important is to make sure you have a plan to help your child get enough sleep. An added benefit of having this conversation with your teen about something neutral, like how much sleep there are getting, means that it will be easier for you to have conversations about more difficult topics in the future.

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