Teens are like toddlers in their need for sleep.  Our teens need to sleep. It’s not just a stereotype or an urban myth.

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests teens get nine hours of sleep a night.  The National Sleep foundation put it at 9.25 hours.  In Teach Your Children Well, Madeline Levine quotes the AAP  report identifying 85% of teens as sleep deprived.

“Rather than minimizing sleep deprivation as being just another inevitable part of adolescence like acne or crabbiness, we need to understand that its consequences ar serious, health compromising and preventable.” (p. 108)

Sleep restores us physically, cognitively, and emotionally and is essential to our well-being.  During the teen years, there’s  a stronger need for sleep that is truly restful and adequate, although their bodies and external schedules demand otherwise.  Sleep helps teens grow physically, wards of academic difficulties, enables them to better manage stress, helps to optimize problem solving skills, sustain attention and concentration and participate safety in sports, activities, and driving.

Biologically, teens are wired for staying up later and rising later.  For the most part, schools start earlier and in the drive to “do it all,” after school commitments often push the start of homework well into the evening. It’s a vicious cycle.

It used to be we though sleep was driven by a sleep-wake homeostasis (i.e. the longer one is awake, the greater the need for sleep – all other things being equal).   The sleep-wake cycle comes into opposition with the internal biological clock that can keep one awake when she should be tired.  Dr. Mary Carskadon and Bill Dement found that the internal biological clock that typically sets the sleep-wake cycle can actually work against adolescents as young as 10-12 years. These researchers  found that at certain points of the day and at certain ages, the internal clock that helped regulate sleep, actually drives teens to stay awake when they should be falling asleep.  Carskadon calls this the “Forbidden Zone.” Parents often see this when they send their teens to bed yet find them awake hours later.

Other research points to the “sleep debt” that many teens and adults walk around with every day.  Early starts for high schools contribute to this debt.  Robust schedules of homework, sports, work and teen social life are interfere with sleep, not to mention the example adults set for multitasking, working in bed, and not sleeping enough ourselves.  The Brown study goes onto label this sleep deficit among teens as a “hidden epidemic” with huge risks in terms of mental health, academic achievement and engagement with peers, family, sports and community groups. A lack of solid sleep may also lead to a range of learning and memory problems.   Healthy sleep allows all of us to consolidate learning from the day and there is also research to show that our brains continue to learn while we sleep.  A good night’s sleep is essential after new learning and before assessments, just a good study habits and a healthy diet contribute to effective learning.

Vicki Abeles, director of the documentary “Race to Nowhere” and co-author of the Washington Post article “Sleep Deprivation and teens: ‘Walking Zombies,'” sites research form the National Sleep Foundation that only 8% of American teens get the required 9.25 hours of sleep per night.  Cornell sleep expert James Maas reports that “Every single high school student” he has “ever measured in terms of their alertness is a walking zombie.”  Abeles goes on to report it’s not just the zombie behavior but the link to lower levels of the Human Growth Hormone associated with sleep deprivation that is most alarming.  HGH is essential to physical growth, brain development and maturation of teen’s immune system. Lower levels are also related to higher rates of anxiety disorders and depression.

There’s a lot working against teens and healthy sleep habits, but there are things you can model, encourage and reinforce.  Here are five:

  1. Limit caffeine, even from hidden sources such as chocolate, particularly late int the day
  2. Encourage exercise daily, including brisk exercise in the evening to relieve stress, move the body and prepare for rest.
  3. Build a consistent and peaceful evening routine that includes powering down electronics 30-60 minutes before bed (unless quite music is part of the routine). This is a doosey for many of us, but be a good example. Work together on reasonable guidelines. Find those apps that put smart phones in sleep modes so emails, photos, and text can wait until morning.
  4. Allow and encourage  short naps. A 20-30 minute power nap can be restorative, but avoid deep sleep that is hard to awaken and re-acclimate to the day.
  5. Allow teens to sleep in on days off.  Experts recommend  2 hours later than usual to catch up on any deficit.  More than that needed? Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate the daily habits which prevail during the week.

Have other strategies that work for your teen? Drop a line or two in the comment box below.

Take care,


Lisa Dewey Wells

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