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20150217 teen sleeping

Do you remember the last time you got 8-10 hours of sleep per night?  For me, I think it was about 4 ½ years ago just before my first kiddo, Mr. J, was born.  Oh, how I miss those days, or more correctly, those wonderful nights.  But enough daydreaming!  Eight to ten hours is actually how much sleep per night the National Sleep Foundation recommends for 14-17 year olds.  Studies show that chronic sleep deprivation in childhood and adolescence can lead to a multitude of health problems ranging from obesity and high blood pressure to depression and poor academic performance.  So exactly how much sleep are teens getting these days and what can be done to improve the quality of sleep they are getting?

After age 16, the majority of teens reported getting less than 7 hours of sleep per night, let alone the recommended 8-10 hours.

A study that will be published in the March 2015 issue of Pediatrics (click here to read the full study) evaluated the sleep patterns of over 270,000 teens spanning a 21 year period from 1991-2012.  The teens in the study were asked two important questions: 1) “How often do you get at least 7 hours of sleep?” and 2) “How often do you get less sleep than you should?”.  The study found that while ⅔ of 13 year olds reported getting at least 7 hours of sleep per night, only ⅓ of 18 years old reported getting that much sleep.  After age 16, the majority of teens reported getting less than 7 hours of sleep per night, let alone the recommended 8-10 hours.  The study also found that many teens thought they were getting enough sleep each night even though they were getting less than 7 hours per night indicating that there is likely a misperception of just how much sleep is enough.

So why the down trend in sleep time for teens?  I believe that this problem is multifactorial and includes increased amounts of homework especially between middle and high school, an increase in the amount of time spent at after school jobs that teens may want or need to have, the desire to be involved in an ever growing number of  extracurricular activities that seem to take more and more time commitment every year, as well as the large impact of new, distraction-riddled, “infinitely connected” technology in our daily lives.  There is a lot of research at this time looking at the influence of today’s technology driven society where we have internet and social media at our fingertips 24 hours a day and what impact this could be having on sleep, especially in the teenage population.

This means that the hormone that helps with sleep - melatonin - might not even be released to prompt teen sleep until closer to 11pm.

This most recent study about the ever decreasing amount of sleep teens are getting lends even more clout to the recent policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in regards to sleep in teens (click here to see the full policy statement) which advocates for middle and high school students to begin their school day no earlier than 8:30am.  The recommendation is based on the idea that after puberty, the sleep-wake cycle and natural circadian rhythm of teens is shifted by about 2 hours.  This means that the hormone that helps with sleep - melatonin - might not even be released to prompt teen sleep until closer to 11pm.  If that is the case, then current school start times of 7:30am or even earlier don’t make any sense.  Assuming that teens go to bed right at 11pm when their melatonin kicks in, it is nearly impossible to get the minimum 8 hours of sleep, then wake up and make it to school ready to start learning by 7:30am.   With that said, I think that the idea of shifting the start time of middle and high school is certainly an interesting idea and one that will likely be more closely analyzed as we learn even more about the ever increasing body of evidence pointing to major health issues that can result from chronic lack of sleep in teens.

Parents should institute a “media curfew” that requires all media be turned off at least 1 hour before bedtime.

So until schools decide to embrace a later start time, what can parents do to help ensure adequate sleep during the teen years?  First, see if your teen’s sleep routine needs an overhaul.  Teens should aim to get in bed around the same time every night (and since school times have not yet adjusted in most cases to AAP recommendations, this probably means by or before 10pm for most).  I also always encourage parents to keep the bedroom a “technology free” zone.  Television, game systems, tablets, smartphones and any other distraction-inducing devices should not accompany your teen to bed as the bright lights from these devices only serves to continue to stimulate the brain and keep teens from falling asleep.  Next, while caffeinated beverages such as energy drinks and specialty coffees have gained a lot of popularity over the past several years, especially in the teenage population, these drinks have no place in the evening routine of any child or teen.  Finally, parents should institute a “media curfew” that requires all media be turned off at least 1 hour before bedtime.  While I am sure that every teen who hears this rule will roll their eyes and think I am speaking in a foreign language, it really is an important aspect of trying to establish healthy sleep habits.

My husband would tell you that I am certainly not a model citizen when it comes to getting enough sleep (I think this comes from residency training, the “mommy” genes, late-night call, and, in some cases, even tending this website).  One thing is for sure, though…I am adamant when it comes to the sleep habits and schedules of our children.  A set sleep routine is something that we started when they were very young, and it is something that I plan to continue on through to their teenage years, even though I am quite sure there will be battles waged when they are told to hand over their “smart device” (whatever that may look like 10 years from now) before proceeding to bed.  But in my mind, this is one of those battles that is a “must win” - for your teen’s health and well-being, and also for your sanity as a parent.