Our teenagers have multiple demands on their time including school, part-time jobs, extracurricular clubs, and sports. It seems that the very definition of a successful teenager includes excelling in all of these areas but at what cost? Unfortunately, for over 75% of teenagers in the United States, that cost is adequate sleep.
Teens need 9 to 9.5 hours of sleep per night, an hour more than they need in their late childhood. Why the extra sleep? Teenagers’ brains are growing and developing just as fast as their bodies are growing. Unfortunately, their circadian rhythms are shifting making it more difficult for them to fall asleep earlier. These night owls become sleep deprived as an increase in homework and activities fill their evenings and earlier school start times cut their sleep cycles short.
Sleep is restorative not only for the body but also the brain. Studies have shown that adequate sleep decreases our risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity while boosting our immune system. Sleep also impacts learning as it increases our ability to focus, think abstractly, and retain information. Sleep deprivation leads to irritability and impulsivity; mood swings are heightened making it more difficult to make clear decisions. Sleep deficiency in teenagers is linked to increased suicidal thoughts, depression, and driving accidents.
What can we do?
Place value in sleep over activities. Make sleep a priority in the home! Getting a good night’s sleep shouldn’t just occur before a big game or test, but every day.
Ban technology from the bedroom. Not only does screen time occupy our teens’ time but also it exposes them to a type of light that suppresses the production of melatonin, making it harder to fall asleep. Turn off all electronics one hour before bed and keep cell phones out of our bedrooms and charged in a common area.
Keep to a schedule. A regular consistent schedule on weekdays and weekends helps to maintain good sleep. If your teen wants to sleep more than 2 extra hours each weekend day, it suggests that he or she may be sleep deprived during the week.
Exercise each day. Regular exercise is particularly helpful but try not to exercise late at night as it can make falling asleep more difficult.
Avoid caffeine, especially after noon. Caffeine can increase insomnia, anxiety, and headaches. It is never a substitute for sleep.
Beds are for sleep. Discourage your teen from doing homework, playing games, or watching TV in bed. Good sleep associations develop when beds are only used for quiet relaxation and sleep. Don’t force sleep. If your teen can’t fall asleep in bed, suggest a quiet activity like reading in a chair and return to bed when sleepy.
Be mindful of the summer shift. Most teens like to refill the sleep bank during the summer. However, if teens push bedtime too far past their normal school routine, it can make the return to school in the fall much more difficult.
For more information about healthy sleep habits, visit your pediatrician or explore www.sleepfoundation.org and www.healthychildren.org.
Dr. Elizabeth Evans has been practicing pediatrics for more than 15 years. She lives on Mercer Island with her husband and three daughters. She is actively involved in the community with Girl Scouts, National Charity League, and the Mercer Island High School PTA. She is also part of the wonderful team of pediatricians at Mercer Island Pediatrics.