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The Ins and Outs of Teen Sleep

Student sleeoing with book aside
Photograph by Getty Images/Flickr RM

If it seems like your teen's body clock went berserk when puberty hit, that's because it did. Yes, teenage-dom is a time of texting marathons and mountains of homework, but there's something else keeping your kid up: During the teenage years, brains are actually wired to stay up late. "There's this change in their body clocks in puberty that leaves teens out of sync with society," says Dr. Helene Emsellem, MD, author of Snooze or Lose! and Director of the Center for Sleep and Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, MD. She explains that the average teenage brain starts releasing melatonin–a chemical that gets us ready to sleep–several hours later than little-kid brains. It's biological.

The problem is, teen brains are also wired to sleep late. Research shows that the average teen needs a whopping 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep each night. This means if they hit the sack at 1 a.m., they'd need to sleep until at least 9:30 a.m. to be fully rested. In summer and on weekends, that's okay. On school days... not so much. "Let's say a kid gets seven hours of sleep a night. By the end of five days of school, they've built up 7.5 hours of sleep debt," says Emsellem. No wonder they sleep through lunch on Saturdays.

A sleep-deprived kid doesn't always look sleepy

Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Building up what Emsellem calls "sleep debt" can have big-time negative effects. For example:

  • Bad Grades: A lack of z's can lead to poor school performance, especially if students are sleeping through class, or are so tired they routinely play hooky.
  • Behavioral Problems "These kids come in, and they don't have any idea what they've been yelling at their parents when they try to wake them up," says Emsellem. "They have no clue. If someone went in your bedroom in the middle of a sleep cycle—say, 4:30 a.m.—you wouldn't be very pleasant either."
  • ADHD Symptoms "A sleep-deprived kid doesn't always look sleepy," says Dr. Ruchir Patel, MD, Director of the Insomnia and Sleep Institute of Arizona. "Sometimes it's the opposite. They're bouncing off the walls. We see a lot of adolescents—particularly young teens—who have been given an ADHD diagnosis, when really they're just exhausted."
  • Sickness "Sleep deprivation weakens the immune system," says Dr. Patel, "making us more prone to getting common infections, like colds."
  • Spontaneous Sleep "Some of these worn-out teens are coming in and presenting with the exact symptoms of narcolepsy," says Patel. "When they get into a sedentary position–in class, on the couch, or even behind the wheel–their brains are dropping directly into R.E.M. sleep. They don't have narcolepsy; it's just that the brain is taking the opportunity to recover lost sleep."
  • Drowsy Driving Read that last paragraph again. The BEHIND THE WHEEL part. It's one thing to nod off in chemistry class. But these kids are driving to school–or home from a party–with a brain that is desperate for sleep. That's bad.

NEXT: What you can do to help your kid get to bed

What you can do

"I believe that if you are educated you can make better decisions for yourself. The changes are not intuitive," says Emsellem, who stresses that teens need to be made aware of how much sleep they need–and how to help their bodies turn off a little earlier in the evening. Here are a few tips to help your kid hit the hay:

"Sleep ranks right up there with eating right and exercising. Make sure it's something that is really valued in your house"
  • Get in the Dark "We live in this 24/7 lit society," says Emsellem. "Teens and parents really need to understand the power of light. It's a huge signal to the brain to stay awake." She urges parents to enforce a nightly "lights out" time at least 8.5 hours before their child needs to be up for school.
  • Power Down "You think if you're nestling in bed with an iPad, that's not a lot of light, but it's a real problem. Plus, this generation is literally texting in their sleep," Emsellem says. Consider designating a spot, perhaps in the kitchen, where everyone plugs in their gadgets before bedtime. Patel agrees, saying, "Get the TV's, the computers, the phones, the video games out of your kids' rooms."
  • Baby Steps "A kid can't switch from a 2 a.m. bedtime to a 10 p.m. bedtime in a week," says Patel. Their brain won't let them. Both Patel and Emsellem recommend that teens slowly adjust their bedtime, focusing on controlling their exposure to light and other stimuli, and settling down a little earlier each night.
  • Cut Caffeine It takes five to seven hours for half of the caffeine from a soda or coffee to leave your system. That means a little jolt in the morning won't hurt nighttime sleep, but a late-afternoon soda could keep your kid up. Patel recommends skipping caffeinated drinks after 4 p.m.
  • Encourage Routines Remember that bath-brush-story-sleep routine from when he was a baby? Resurrect it. (Well, sort of.) "Routines help give the brain signals that it's time to sleep," says Patel. Teach your teen to get homework out of the way before dinner, and to do the same (dimly lit, relaxing) things before bed each night.
  • Back Off Go ahead and let your teen sleep in on the weekend. "They need to make up some of that sleep," says Patel. "They have to."
  • Suggest Catnaps Emsellem points out that short afternoon naps can help teens recharge for homework. "Just make sure they're no longer than 20-30 minutes," she says.
  • Advocate Some school districts have found that later bell times have led to better attendance, less students nodding off in morning classes and higher grades. "I really believe that everybody has got to get up in arms about this," says Emsellem. Consider joining the ranks of parents who are pushing local school boards for later secondary school start times.
  • Snooze "Be a good example," Emsellem urges. Sleep ranks right up there with eating right and exercising. Make sure it's something that is really valued in your house, and there's a better chance your kids will take it seriously. Besides, you need sleep, too.

The bottom line is that sleep doesn't come easy for teens. So cut them (and yourself) some slack. Shift a little of the blame to biology, and then arm them with tools that will help them get more rest. If they can latch on to good sleep habits, they'll be healthier, more focused, and less crabby ... sounds worth the effort to us.

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