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Teenagers and Sleep

We can all agree that there are few things as satisfying as a good night of sleep. It is essential to our well-being. During sleep we heal, we learn and regain our energy. It helps us pay attention, think faster and it improves our mood. A lack of it and we become grumpy, fatigued and have difficulty concentrating. When you don’t get enough sleep, you are more likely to get injured, sick or have an accident. Drowsiness and falling asleep while driving accounts for more than 100,000 car crashes each year. According to a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, people who sleep six to seven hours a night are twice as likely to be involved in such a crash as those sleeping 8 hours or more, while people sleeping less than 5 hours increased their risk four to five times.

As we age, our sleep cycle changes. Infants, sleep for a few hours at a time until they are able to “consolidate” sleep into a single, long span once per day. Children usually outgrow the need for a nap around age 4 or 5, but their overnight sleep can last for 10 -12 hours. Young, school-aged children tend to go to bed relatively early and wake up early on their own (especially on Christmas morning!).

However, in the teenage years, our sleep onset time moves further and further back, until we end up with the stereotypical teenage, “late to bed, late to rise” phenomenon. Many teens accurately report that they are not tired and can’t sleep when their parents send them to bed. And they can be notoriously difficult to get out of bed in the morning. Left to their own natural rhythm, most teens would sleep from late in the night until late in the morning! It’s important for parents to understand that this is biological and common. Work with your teen to get the best sleep possible. Threats and punishment do not help them sleep better!

For teens, this natural rhythm is in conflict with their school schedule. High school and middle school start the earliest – even earlier than some preschoolers! What’s a teenager to do?

  • Go to bed at the same time every night (stay on top of your homework).
  • Avoid naps
  • If bedtime is later than you need, gradually move it up by 15 minute increments until you can reliably fall asleep within 20-30 minutes.
  • Keep your room dark for sleep, light for waking (automated lamp?)
  • Keep your phone out of your room from bedtime to morning
  • Sleep as late as you can without creating chaos in your morning
  • Avoid caffeine and eating right before bed (at least an hour)
  • Sleep in on the weekend. This helps a lot. Although teens need 9-10 hours/night, many only get 6-8. The good news is that research has shown that the long-term negative effects of sleep deprivation can be erased by sleeping in on the weekend. However, it is much better to get the sleep when you need it during the school nights since it is so critical to attention during the day and consolidation (moving what you learned during the day into your memory) during the night.

This pattern can last through the early 20’s until we start needing earlier bedtimes and begin to rise earlier more naturally. Eventually, in our senior years, many return to the younger child pattern with a natural early-to-bed, early-to-rise pattern. Which might explain the 4:30 pm early-bird dinners our grandparents seem to enjoy so much!

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