If you’ve ever had to drag your teen out of bed to get ready for school in the morning, you’re not alone. Scientific research has begun to support what parents have suspected for years—the teen body runs on a different schedule than the rest of the world. Changes in the adolescents’ bodies are coupled with school schedules, extracurricular activities, and budding social lives. This recipe makes it difficult for many teens to get the full eight to ten hours of sleep they need.
A fundamental shift in the sleep-wake cycle takes place as children transition into adolescence. In pre-adolescence, children start to feel sleepy between eight and nine o’clock at night. In teens, a shift, called sleep phase delay, takes place that makes them feel tired a full two hours later. While it may look like your teen has insomnia, the truth is he doesn’t start to feel tired until ten or eleven o’clock.
For years, schools have developed class schedules under the assumption that the teen body functions like an adult’s. Classes often begin before 8:30 in the morning. Many teens start their day well before the sun is up. With sleep phase delay, that puts them at risk for chronic sleep deprivation.
As new evidence has emerged about the sleep needs of teens, some schools have tried experimenting with later start times. Not only have they observed an improvement in academic performance but also happier, kinder students with a decrease in behavioral problems. It turns out that working with teen biology rather than against it helps teens perform at their best.
While a change in school start times can undoubtedly help, learning about and committing to healthier sleep is an important step for teens to get the rest they need. During adolescence, teens may have to learn to balance school, family obligations, part-time employment, and a social life. The learning process needs to include understanding the role that sleep plays in a healthy lifestyle.
Teens, and parents too, can learn to develop good sleep habits that lead to a full night’s sleep. It starts by making sure the bedroom has the right sleep conditions. The mattress should be firm or well-supported by a foundation or box spring. A dark, cool, quiet bedroom offers the best sleep atmosphere. In some cases, you might need to invest in blackout curtains to keep light and noise down to a minimum.
Consistency also helps regulate a teen’s changing sleep-wake cycle. A regular bedtime that’s kept on weekends as well as weekdays helps the body know when to release sleep hormones. If your teen has trouble falling asleep at night, a bedtime routine might be what he needs to help his mind and body prepare for sleep. Routines help trigger the release of sleep hormones and give your teen time to release stress after a long day.
It’s also important to eliminate factors that could be keeping your teen awake. For teens, two factors are screen time and stimulants. Screen time, including video games, can suppress the release of sleep hormones. The bright blue light emitted by televisions, smartphones, laptops, and other electronic devices could be keeping your child from feeling sleepy. Encourage your teen to shut off the screens at least an hour before bed.
Stimulants like caffeine block sleep hormones for hours, making it tough to settle down at night. Consumption should stop at least four hours before bed to give your teen the best chance at a good night’s rest.
Tuck Sleep is a community devoted to improving sleep hygiene, health and wellness through the creation and dissemination of comprehensive, unbiased, free web-based resources. Tuck has been featured on NPR, Lifehacker, Radiolab and is referenced by many colleges/universities and sleep organizations across the web.