The Finals Stretch

Prevent Unhealthy Teen Sleep Deprivation

As if parents of teenagers didn’t have enough to worry about—they must also manage their kids’ new late-night habits, from all-night study sessions for finals to staying out later with friends.

Teens who push for later hours or claim they “don’t feel tired” at night aren’t necessarily rebelling. When it comes to sleeping, their bodies are different from adults or even younger children.

Just after puberty the body clock or circadian rhythms of many teens may shift to a later time schedule. In some teens, this shift may be by as much as 3-4 hours. This later shifting of the body clock translates into teens feeling more sleepy in the morning when it’s time to get up to go to school, but alert later in the evening when it’s typically time to go to bed.

Many adolescents reinforce this clock shift by staying up even later, and sleeping in until noon, on weekends. By adulthood, most body clocks shift back to a “normal” sleep wake time schedule.

Teens are also different from adults in the amount of sleep they need on a nightly basis.  They really need about 9-10 hours of sleep every night to stay healthy and perform at their best. Unfortunately, most get less than they need, averaging around 6 hours per night on most school nights.


Turning ZZZ’s into AAA’s

This combination of shifted body clocks and inadequate sleep times on a chronic basis may lead to problems, including poorer academic performance and increased risk for motor vehicle accidents.

Most teens who present to their pediatrician with sleep related symptoms complain of daytime sleepiness.  The overwhelming majority of these individuals are suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. While sleep disorders like Sleep Apnea can occur in teens, sleep apnea is much less common and is typically seen in those who are overweight.

Other adolescents may complain of sleep onset insomnia, or the inability to fall asleep at a normal bedtime, which is by-product of the normal shift of their body clocks. Some pediatric sleep specialists argue that many cases of Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD, may actually be related to chronic sleep deprivation. Many of the typical symptoms of ADD mirror physiologic behavioral responses to chronic sleep deprivation.

In fact, sleep plays an important role in learning and development. While teens may feel late-night studying helps their grades, all-nighters actually do more harm than good for academic performance.

Recent research shows that the brain consolidates and practices what it learns during sleep. Researchers have created tests called “cognitive procedural tasks” that mimic problems in academic subjects, sports and social situations.

The test showed that when learning new tasks, adolescents who had six hours or less of sleep do not improve and even fall behind. Proper sleep not only helps students perform each day, it’s critical to retaining new knowledge.


A Hidden Epidemic

With thousands of teens under-performing in school, and nearly 30 percent of car crashes caused by drivers under age 26, some sleep researchers consider teen sleep deprivation a hidden epidemic. Poor sleep affects many areas critical to a teen’s health, happiness and well-being:

  • Driving ability
  • Academic performance
  • Mood
  • Decision-making
  • Athletic performance
  • Social Interactions
  • Physical appearance


Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Most U.S. high schools start around 7:20 a.m., yet most teens aren’t feeling tired until after 11 p.m. It’s a challenge that’s exacerbated by the tendency for teens to dramatically alter their sleep on the weekends: staying up later at night and sleeping late in the morning. This schedule reinforces a body clock that’s timed for a later wake-up, making the Monday six a.m. alarm that much harder.


The National Institute of Health and the National Sleep Foundation Offers These Tips for Better Teen Sleep:

  • Help your teenager plan his or her time, and set clear, reasonable expectations about social activities.

  • Most teens need 9-10 hours of sleep. Is your teen doing too much—are activities, sports and work interfering?

  • Teens can “make up” for sleep on the weekends. But avoid reinforcing their body clocks by establishing consistent bedtimes and limiting extreme late nights and sleeping in.

  • Have your teen avoid caffeine in the evening. They should also avoid doing non-sleep activities, such as homework, in bed. Before bedtime, turn off distracting electronics like TVs, laptops and phones.

  • Treat sleep as a serious, everyday health and hygiene issue—not a luxury or a weekend treat.