Parents of teens know the struggle of early school mornings. It’s difficult if not impossible to wake a sleeping teenager — and although it can be a frustrating process, it’s entirely normal.
In the teen years, adolescents go through physical and social changes that shift how they sleep. These changes can present challenges for parents and teens themselves as they struggle to adjust to their new sleep habits and make sure they get the rest they need each night.
The Science of Teens and Sleep
When puberty hits, adolescents go through many changes, and that includes changing the way they sleep. They experience a shift in the timing of their circadian rhythm.
This circadian shift pushes their bedtime back by a couple of hours. They may have started feeling sleepy around 8 or 9 p.m. before puberty, but after experiencing a shift in their circadian rhythm, they may not feel tired until 10 or 11 p.m. This is what’s known as a sleep phase delay.
This sleep phase delay can put pressure on a teen’s sleeping schedule, especially if they have an early school start time. In fact, with five out of six U.S. middle and high schools starting before 8:30 a.m., a teen who falls asleep at 11 p.m. has less than nine and a half hours to sleep, wake up, and get to school. Typically, teens need nine to ten hours of sleep each night.
Teens and Sleep Deprivation
With pressure on their sleep schedule, it’s not unusual for teens to fall chronically short on sleep. In fact, about 70 percent of high school students don’t sleep for 8 hours on school nights.
Sleep deprivation is dangerous and is associated with unhealthy risk behaviors, trouble with schoolwork, depression, and health risk factors. Consequences of insufficient sleep may include:
- Insufficient physical activity
- Cigarette, alcohol, or substance abuse
- Risky sexual activity
- Physical fighting
- Feeling sad, hopeless, or suicidal
- Drowsy driving
How to Help Teens Sleep Better
Teen sleep can be difficult, but parents can offer support and guidelines for improving the quality and quantity of sleep for teens.
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Consistency helps support healthy sleep. When teens go to bed and wake up at the same time each day and night, they reinforce that schedule and make it easier to fall asleep on time each night. A consistent bedtime routine can help them wind down as well and can be as simple as plugging in their phone for the night, brushing their teeth, and reading a few pages from a book before falling asleep.
- Be careful with naps and weekend sleep. When teens don’t get enough sleep at night during the week, they typically look elsewhere to make up that sleep time. This “make-up sleep” is not a good long-term solution, as an inconsistent sleep schedule further confuses their already changing circadian rhythm. Encourage teens to avoid sleeping in later than an hour or two on the weekends, and limit naps to 20 to 30 minutes.
- Discourage overcommitment. Teens have many demands on their time, and it’s easy to end up with more than they can handle. Encourage your teen to carefully consider their schedule and make sleep a priority, scheduling commitments around rest and not the other way around.
- Limit nighttime screen time. Our circadian rhythms rely on biological and environmental cues, and lighting is one of these powerful cues. Light, even artificial light, sends a signal that it’s daytime or that teens should be alert, which is not appropriate at night. The blue wave light of laptops, TVs, and mobile devices can leave teens feeling too energized to fall asleep at night. It’s best to stop screen time at least an hour before bed.
- Maintain a healthy sleep environment. Make sure teens have a comfortable bed where they can relax. Medium-firm mattresses are a great choice for back sleepers, though side and stomach sleepers might want something softer. Encourage them to avoid using their bed for schoolwork, watching TV, or other activities. Avoiding these activities can help reinforce the signal that their bed is for sleeping and can help them feel more relaxed when they get into bed at night.