Sleep for Teenagers

Teenage Zombies

Tweens and teens are often the worst sleepers in the family.  This may sound counter-intuitive when you are begging your teenager to get out of bed on school mornings, or walking past your still snoozing teen at 10 AM on the weekend.   However, this age group frequently suffers from insufficient amounts of quality sleep.  Sleep is important, no question.  Sleep deprived teens are often irritable, have trouble relating to peers, and are at high risk for depression and anxiety.  They may have lower school performance, and problems with attention, memory and decision making, which may lead to risk-taking behaviors.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that teens get between 8.5 and 9 hours of sleep each night.  A poll done by the National Sleep Foundation found that roughly 60 percent of middle schoolers and 87 percent of high school students were getting LESS than that amount on school nights.  Interestingly, most parents (90%) believed their children were getting enough sleep.

The factors for poor sleep in teenagers are many.  Middle school and high school students are busy people.  From extensive homework and projects to a multitude of after-school and evening activities, their schedules are full. In addition, diet and media have substantial implications on the quality and onset of sleep in teenagers.  Biologically, there is a shift of an internal clock that occurs after puberty.  This shift may result in your teen falling asleep two hours later than your school aged child, but not waking until 2 hours later, as well.

How do you ensure that your teen is able to get the sleep they need while still able to meet the requirements of a busy academic, sports and social life?  One important first step is to talk frankly with your teen about the benefits of sleep.  Take a moment to sit with your teen and evaluate actual amount of sleep they are getting, and identify the factors that may be keeping them from getting enough sleep.

High school start times have been in the news more and more in recent years. The AAP strongly endorses middle and high school start time of 8:30 or later, to encourage teens to get the sleep they need.  Increasingly, schools are responding by changing start times for secondary students to later in the morning.

Talk about the importance of good nutrition and exercise, and how they are related to sleep.  Increasingly, teens are consuming caffeinated beverages of all types, including coffee-based drinks, sodas and energy drinks. Workout powders/shakes often have 2-3 cups of coffee’s worth of caffeine per serving. It is extremely important to limit consumption of caffeine containing foods after 2 pm. Maintaining a healthy weight avoids sleep related problems such as snoring and sleep apnea, which can occur in teens as well as adults.  Studies show that the more physically active persons are during the day, the easier it is to fall asleep and stay asleep. On the other hand, the endorphins released during exercise (whether organized sports, athletic competitions, going to the gym, or going for a run or bike ride) are stimulating and can make it harder to fall asleep if occurring too late in the evening. When possible, late evening exercise should be limited or avoided. Be aware that the ‘dinner’ at 9pm after sports practice and a shower may adversely impact your teen’s ability to fall asleep, however.  Adjust meals and maybe offer a lighter snack later in the evening.

Look at the quality of your child’s sleep environment.  Your teen probably ‘lives’ in his or her room.  Studying, socializing and sometimes snacking feet from where he or she later needs to rest may make falling asleep difficult.  Making space separate from your child’s room where some of these activities can be completed may be beneficial.  This could be as simple as creating a space for your teen to study at a desk, rather than on the bed.

For teens (perhaps not surprisingly), electronic media is a leading cause of sleep disturbance.  This, too, may be due to several factors.  The first concern is that media use directly displaces sleep; your teen is staying up late enjoying video games or text messages with friends instead of sleeping.  Additionally, the light emitted from electronic devices has been shown to alter circadian rhythms, directly suppressing the secretion of a sleep inducing hormone (melatonin).  ‘’Unplugging’’ is critical for teen sleep.  One solution is to take the television and computer out of the teenager’s room.  Have a family ‘docking station’ where all electronic media including phones, smart watches, music players and tablets are plugged in to charge before their owner turns in for the night.  Reinforce the use of the ‘do not disturb’ or ‘silence’ button on the device to avoid being awakened by the ‘ping’ of an incoming message. Model this behavior yourself, restricting your own electronic use in the bedroom.

Finally, don’t allow your teen to make up for that busy school week by ‘sleeping in’ until noon on the weekend.  This may temporarily help, but is no substitute for regular, quality sleep.  Shifting this sleep schedule, even by a few hours, will make it harder to sleep during the week.  Encourage your child to sleep in no more than one additional hour over his normal wake time, even on the weekends.  This helps preserve his sleep-wake cycle through the week.

Additional Sleep Resources for Adolescents

Sleep Tips for Your Family’s Mental Health (American Academy of Pediatrics)

Melatonin for Kids: What Parents Should Know About This Sleep Aid (American Academy of Pediatrics)

Melatonin: What You Need to Know (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)