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Teens need 8-10 hours of sleep but only 30% of high schoolers get enough shut-eye.
Lack of sleep can cause a range of problems from physical (weight gain, diabetes, increased risk of injuries) to behavioral health (anxiety, depression, and more).
Parents can help teens establish healthy sleep routines so they can get the rest they desperately need.
Two teens share their experiences and advice on how others can make sleep a priority.
As a parent, you remember just how important your child’s nap was when they were a baby, toddler, or even a preschooler. And you knew what would happen if they skipped that nap. They’d be grumpy, irritable and you’d be counting down the hours until bedtime.
Did you know that sleep is just as important for your teenager? In fact, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that teens, ages 13-18, get 8-10 hours of sleep.
Unfortunately, ask any parent (or teen) and they’ll tell you this typically isn’t the case. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 70% of high schoolers did not get enough sleep on school nights.
Teens and sleep: Why it’s important
Teens are going through rapid developmental changes. Hormones are rising. Facial and body hair is sprouting. Emotions are constantly in flux. It’s no surprise, then, that their bodies need sleep to keep up with all these changes. Not only does sleep help the body rest, heal and recover from a long day, but it also is key in staying healthy – physically, mentally, and emotionally.
In fact, research shows that when teens don’t get enough sleep, it can lead to serious problems like:
- Increased risk of anxiety, depression and bipolar disorders
- Risky decision making that increases the possibility of injuries
- Increased risk of obesity and diabetes
- Drowsy driving and increased risk of motor vehicle crashes
- Difficulty concentrating and focusing
- Decreased school performance
These are teen-specific risks but there are also other effects of not getting enough sleep like, memory issues, weakened immunity or risk of heart disease.
Plus, there’s the reality that when you don’t get enough sleep you just don’t feel well.
Real Talk from Teens
Dr. Robin Henderson, chief executive for behavioral health for Providence Oregon and chief clinical officer of Work2BeWell recently spoke to two high schoolers about sleep. You’ll hear what they have to say throughout this article.
“If I don’t get enough sleep, I feel like a can’t function. I’ll get an hour into the day and be ready for a nap.” – Lily
“I have zero motivation to get things done. All I think about is when I’ll be able to take a nap.” – Liana
Listen to the entire podcast on Teen Sleep.
Help teens build healthy sleep habits
The good news is that it’s never too late to help your teen get the shut-eye they need. If your teen (like most) needs to work on building better sleep habits, start with a simple conversation about the importance of getting a good night’s sleep. Then, you can work together to figure out a nighttime routine that works for them.
Here are some helpful tips to get you both started.
Stick to a consistent schedule during the week and weekend. That means going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time each morning. It might be tempting to stay up later on the weekends and while that’s okay every once in a while, it can wreak havoc with your body’s routine and rhythm in falling asleep.
Research also indicates that adolescents who have a set bedtime are more likely to get enough sleep.
Limit screen time at night
Scrolling through social media at night can make it tough for teens (and adults) to fall asleep. The blue light from the screen disrupts our body’s natural circadian rhythm – the cycle that lets our bodies know it’s time to wind down for sleep. Plus, peering at those social media posts can create stress, worry, and anxiety for what’s to come the next school day.
Help your teen manage media exposure at night.
- Set a media curfew when all electronics must be turned off; aim for one hour before bedtime
- Limit where to use electronics (and keep them out of the bedroom)
- Use dark mode to help limit blue light at night
- Turn on “do not disturb” mode
“I put my phone into an orange tint light. Then, at 9 p.m. it goes into do not disturb mode so I’m not getting notifications and tempted to look. I go back to my reading and that’s been really helpful.” – Liana
“I have my phone set on dark mode all day because I have bad light sensitivity. With this change, I’ve noticed in the past few months I haven’t been on social media as much. I’ve been reading books on my phone instead.” – Lily
Physical activity during the day can help prepare the body for bed. If your teen isn’t involved in sports, offer to take a walk around the block and catch on up their day. Or encourage your teen to find a sport or exercise class they enjoy. After all, exercise has benefits far beyond helping teens sleep. It’s great for the body and mind!
Create a bedtime routine
When your teen was younger, you likely had a bedtime routine to help signal it was time to go to sleep. That might have been something as simple as taking a bath, reading a book and singing a lullaby. While your teen may not be interested in your singing anymore, they will still benefit from setting a routine that they do every night before bed.
“Make sure you have a set nightly routine, whether that’s brushing your teeth, putting your hair up and making sure your blankets and comforters are set right. Just get into a nightly routine, that way once your body gets into it, it becomes natural, and your muscles take over from there. It just helps you relax.” – Lily
“I have ADD and it makes me fidget a lot. When I would go to bed my legs would not stop moving. My counselor gave me this yoga move to do before bed. I lay on the ground with my legs up a wall for two or three minutes to help my legs calm down. After that, I’m ready to put myself to bed. I also have a weighted blanket. That relaxes my muscles and helps me go to bed a lot faster.” – Liana
Lean into the light
Light is an important signal that tells our bodies when it’s time to go to bed or wake up. Make sure your teen’s room is dark when it’s time to fall asleep. That might include hanging blackout curtains, closing their bedroom door, or even offering up a sleep mask.
In the morning, encourage them to open up the windows or consider getting a sunrise alarm clock that glows with soft light when it’s time to wake up.
Come up with some calming activities
We’ve all experienced those nights when we lay in bed wide awake, mind racing. Let your teen know that’s going to happen from time to time. Instead of stressing over it, brainstorm some calming activities that help settle those racing thoughts and get your teen’s body (and brain) ready for bed.
“I live on the Calm app. Right before bed, I might listen to a story or sleep meditation. The person will talk to you about how your legs, arms, and shoulders should feel. It really helps clear your mind. Having someone talk to me helps remind me how to fall asleep faster.” – Liana
“I do two things when I need to go to bed and it’s hard for me to calm down. I count backward from 100 slowly in my head. Or, I’ll go through the contacts on my phone to see who I know and don’t know anymore. It’s very boring and eventually, your body is like, ‘We need to go to sleep now.’” – Lily
It seems the older we get, the more we appreciate a nap. Tell your teen to embrace the nap to help them get the sleep they need. After all, the recommended 8-10 hours is over 24 hours, so naps count!
Talk to your school board about school start times
Traditionally, high school and middle school times start around 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. But, in 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) said that was too early. Instead, they recommend that teens start school at 8:30 a.m. or later to better align with their natural sleep cycles. Other officials, including the CDC, quickly agreed.
However, school districts have been slow to adopt these regulations, likely because of logistical reasons and traditions. Seattle Public Schools did follow these guidelines and found that teens did get more sleep – as much as 34 minutes more each school night.
“I play sports so I try to finish my homework during the school day – in study hall or if I have free time in another class. Practice runs from 3:30-6 or 6-8. When I get my homework done during the day, I can come home, eat dinner, take a shower and wind down for bed. Otherwise, I’m getting into bed pretty late and have to get up at 6 or 7 the next morning.” – Lily
“I’m in online school and it starts at 9 a.m. That’s been really helpful for me because I’m a night owl. That’s when I’m most productive and awake. I’m able to stay up late and get my homework done and still get a good night’s sleep.” – Liana.
Sleep red flags
Some teens are known for sleeping in on weekends and curling up for a nice afternoon nap. But how can parents tell the difference between recovering from a long day and serious health problems linked to sleep? Here are a few red flags doctors suggest you watch for:
- Excessive sleep: Falling asleep suddenly throughout the day for short periods of time might be a sign of narcolepsy.
- Medication side effects: Some medications can make you drowsy. If you notice your teen seems more tired than usual after starting a new medicine, talk to your child’s doctor about changing the medicine or dose.
- Snoring: Snoring is more than bothersome. It can be a sign of sleep apnea, which momentarily cuts off breathing. Sleep apnea is linked to serious health conditions, including obesity and high blood pressure.
- Sudden behavioral changes: If your teen is sleeping more and you’ve noticed changes in mood, behavior, friendships, activities, or school performance, you should talk to your child’s doctor. These can be a sign of anxiety or depression.
If you have any questions or concerns about your teen’s sleep, talk to your child’s doctor. Together, you can make a plan that works for your teenager and your family.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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