How to understand your teen’s sleep needs.

How much sleep do teens really need.

When teens sleep better, their health, mental health and behaviour improves.

Help! My Teen Sleeps All Day! It’s a cry that goes up from the parents of teens everywhere.  Getting teens out of bed in the morning seems like the hardest and most frustrating job in the world.

However there are emerging news reports that teens really do need more sleep than we thought.  So how have doctors and scientists reached that conclusion?

That’s what we’re going to look at in this article.

How much sleep do teens really need?

As a parent you’ll remember that when your teen was a tiny baby she slept, cried and ate – and that was about all she did.

Then as she grew older she played, learned stuff, slept, cried and ate.  Hopefully you got her into a pattern of bedtime and sleep so that you could get some sleep too.  Eventually the sleep/wake cycle became a pattern that was as much a feature of her life as yours.

These cycles are our circadian rhythms.  Circadian rhythms are the waking/sleep cycles that are influenced by our body clocks and the daylight we’re exposed to. You can find out more about circadian rhythms and associated disorders here.

You were probably expecting that as she got older and nearer adulthood, your teen’s sleep-wake cycle would naturally become more like yours. However research by sleep specialist William C Dement MD and his colleagues at Stanford University shows that teens have different circadian rhythms to the rest of us.

This means they are more awake in the evening and therefore sleep later in the morning.  Rather than being lazy or contrary or badly behaved this is natural for them – they’re night owls.

The Stanford University researchers have also found that teens still need 1-2 hours more sleep than adults.  An adult needs 7-8 hours’ sleep so this means teens need 8-10 hours.

What happens if teens don’t get 8-10 hours of sleep?

sleep affects our healthTeens forced into an adult waking/sleeping pattern – ie getting up for work or school early but who naturally want to go to bed later than 10 or 11pm – will gather a sleep debt.

Sleep debt occurs, just as a bank debt does, when you take out more than you put in.  So a chronic lack of sleep because you’re getting up early and going to sleep late means that you’re not getting what your body needs to be healthy.

For teens this means that they are more likely to:

  • have car accidents,
  • act up and behave badly,
  • take drugs,
  • be violent or aggressive or
  • suffer from sleep disorders as adults.

And studies show that teens are even more affected by sleep debt than adults.

What can be done to help teens get enough sleep?

Social conventions dictate that we should get up early, go to work and go to bed in the mid to late evening.  This can be tough if your teen is at school or has a job that needs an early start.

Some schools have taken heed of studies by the University of Minnesota and psychologist Kyla Wahlstrom.  These schools have changed their start times and seen a huge difference in learning, achievement and engagement from students.

As a parent you might want to:

  • Leave your teen to lie in at the weekend or on her days off from work so that she can catch up on the sleep debt she’s gained through the week.  However a couple of nights of extended sleep won’t pay back a large ‘debt’.
  • Look at Kyla Wahlstrom’s research on the internet (Google the name with ‘University of Minnesota teen sleep research’ or similar) and discuss it with other parents.  A change in school start times may be something you want to discuss with the school principle or at a PTA meeting.
  • Encourage your teen to look for a job that has flexible start times, a later start time or shifts work.
  • If you home-school your teen then think about starting study later in the morning.
  • If late-night gaming/surfing/phone alerts from FaceBook etc are keeping your teen awake, then parental boundaries are needed.  Negotiate with your teen to remove all electronics from the bedroom after bedtime so that she can sleep better and make everyone’s lives easier.

Elspeth Raisbeck

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