As the parent of a teenager, you are most likely frustrated by your teen’s sleep pattern. Getting them to turn the lights out at a reasonable time is a challenge, and they seem to sleep the day away. While some teens do struggle with insomnia, the fact is that during the adolescent years, the natural internal clock that regulates the sleep-wake cycle (known as our circadian rhythm) changes. This means that in an ideal world, teens would be able to go to bed later at night and wake up later in the morning.
How much sleep is enough?
In reality, school and other commitments mean that most teenagers don’t get the amount of sleep they need. The recommendation is for between 8 and 10 hours, with Johns Hopkins pediatrician Dr. Michael Crocetti explaining that 9 to 9 ½ hours of sleep a day supports a teen’s brain in its second developmental stage of maturation as well as their physical growth spurts.
In the US and many other Western countries, daytime naps are not a regular practice. However, in countries where midday naps of up to 60 minutes are culturally acceptable, studies find that not only can individuals concentrate better on tasks in the afternoon, but they also enjoy better nighttime sleep. This may be significant for teenagers who struggle to fall asleep before midnight when they need to be up early for school. A nap of up to an hour during the day may provide teens with the opportunity to get some of the sleep their brains and bodies desperately require.
Why is sleep so important for teenagers?
Not only is sleep vital for physical health and brain development, but it is also essential for mental health. Without sufficient sleep, teenagers are less able to deal with stressors and are at risk of developing behavioral problems. They are more likely to engage in high-risk activities such as alcohol and drug use, dangerous driving, and risky sexual practices. According to a recent study, it might predispose them to criminal behavior later in life.
The numerous benefits of sleep include:
- Brain function. Sleep promotes attention, memory, and analytical thought. It gives teens the opportunity to consolidate what we have learned during the day.
- Healthy emotions. A lack of sleep can affect mood and result in irritability and emotional over-reaction. This can impact social interactions and lead to more serious mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.
- Healthy body. Sleep promotes a healthy immune system, assists in regulating hormones, and allows time for muscle growth and recovery. Insufficient sleep in adolescence may increase the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular problems later on.
- Safe behavior. Tired teens are more likely to be prone to accidental injury or even death. Driving tired has been shown to be as dangerous as drunk driving, especially when coupled with inexperience or distraction. When sleep-deprived or over-tired, teenagers are more likely to engage in risky behavior or give in to peer pressure without considering the possible consequences.
Sleep problems in teens
As parents, we may feel that our teen’s sleep cycles are problematic, but this is generally due to the fact that their body clock is out of sync with our daily routines. There are, however, a few teenage sleep problems that may need further investigation.
Having occasional difficulty falling asleep (or staying asleep) is normal, but if your teen’s insomnia lasts for longer than a month, it is worth consulting a doctor to check for an underlying cause. Anxiety, stress, medical conditions, certain medications, and mental health issues may all contribute to insomnia.
Sleep apnea is a disruptive sleep disorder that causes breathing to briefly stop while sleeping. This may happen as a result of an obstruction caused by tonsils or adenoids, and being overweight may also increase the risk. Snoring, difficulty breathing, and sweating may all be signs of possible apnea.
Medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and epilepsy can all affect the quantity and quality of sleep. Acute illnesses such as colds, flu, or stomach upsets can also affect sleep over a short period of time. There are less common illnesses and conditions that could have an impact on sleep, and you should talk to your doctor if you are concerned.
Emotions and moods can have a big impact on your teenager’s sleep, which can, in turn, affect their mental health. This cycle can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders all of which are hugely disruptive to sleep patterns.
Long-term (chronic) sleep deprivation can have a detrimental effect on your teen’s well-being and result in concentration difficulties, a shortened attention span, and memory impairment. These may affect their academic performance. Tiredness can also lead to poor decision-making, as well as slower physical reflexes and reaction times.
Sleep tips for teens (and parents)
- Being able to talk about their concerns and stressors helps teens find perspective and contributes to better sleep.
- Teens should aim for 60 minutes of moderate exercise daily to promote better sleep and improve general health.
- If possible, remove or limit screens (TVs, computers, tablets, and phones) in the bedroom. Encourage at least one hour of screen-free time before bed.
- Cut down on the caffeine. Caffeine consumption, especially later in the day, can make it difficult to fall asleep and reduces the amount of deep sleep you get. Cutting out coffee, tea, caffeinated sodas, and energy drinks can boost sleep quality.
- Establish a routine. With a regular bedtime routine, your body learns that it is time to slow down and prepare for sleep.
- Create a conducive environment. A bedroom that is quiet, comfortable, and dark provides teens with an environment that facilitates sleep.
- Ditch devices. Games, texting, and other online activities can keep the brain stimulated. Besides, incoming notifications can disrupt sleep. If you can’t pack phones away at bedtime, utilize the night and “do not disturb” mode.
- Schedule changes. If your teen only starts doing homework late in the evening or is over-scheduled, encourage them to look at how they can make small but positive changes to their day.
Sleep aids for teens
If your teenager has a real problem with insomnia or other sleep issues, their pediatrician may prescribe melatonin or another medication. There are, however, a number of other ways to help your teen sleep. These include:
- A cool, calm, comfortable sleep environment
- Soft relaxing music (preferably instrumental)
- Audiobooks for relaxation
- Meditation, yoga, or relaxation breathing exercises
- A journal to write about any worries or concerns
- Chamomile tea or a warm milky drink before bedtime
So, if it seems as if your teenage son or daughter is up all night and sleeps all day, try to see how much sleep they’re actually getting. They may need some help to establish good sleep routines or better manage their time. Finally, rest assured that the unusual sleep patterns of adolescence typically shift back to a more conventional rhythm as teens enter adulthood—this is a normal part of their development.