Sleepy Teen? Here’s Why – and What You Can Do
Teens need more sleep, not less, than children – but they often don’t get it.
Do you have a sleepy teen? Wonder why your child has gone from sleeping like
a rock to suddenly wanting to stay up all night? Turns out sleep patterns
change in the teen years.
San Francisco attorney Richard Blake says it’s nearly impossible to wake his
14-year-old daughter in the morning. “Sasha went from getting up really, really
early and waking us up to sleeping in as long as she can,” says Blake.
Like many other teens, Sasha is super-busy. On school nights, sometimes she
doesn’t get home from track until eight, still needing to eat dinner and do
homework. “By the end of the week she’s run ragged,” says Blake. On weekends,
he says, she often sleeps in past noon.
Sasha’s sleep pattern is pretty typical, says Daniel S. Lewin, PhD, director
of the Pediatric Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Children’s National
Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Though there’s a lot of individual
variation, most teens need between nine and nine and a half hours of sleep, but
get closer to seven or seven and a half. Lack of sleep affects academic ability
and mood, as well as judgment and motor skills.
Why teen sleep patterns change
Researchers have found that modern life -- school, sports, and tech-based
distractions, ranging from cell phones to computers -- are keeping teens from
getting the sleep they need -- and so are biological forces. For one, internal
sleep rhythms shift with puberty. By measuring the amount of melatonin in
saliva, says Brown University sleep expert Mary Carskadon, PhD, researchers now
know that teens start producing the melatonin that tells them when it’s time to
sleep later on at night (compared with younger children who produce it much
earlier in the evening). So when you’re saying, “Go to bed right now!” it’s
hard for them; their bodies aren’t telling them to rest.
Another mechanism, says Carskadon, is the sleep homeostatic process, which
allows teens to fight sleep even though they need rest. “Eight- or 9-year-old
children will want to stay up late, but then they’ll sit down for a few minutes
and fall asleep,” says Carskadon. Not so for teens. “I can’t give you good
‘why’ answers,” she says, as to the reason these mechanisms take place in
teens. She does add that researchers have documented similar shifts in
circadian rhythms in at least five other mammals.
The real-world effects of these biological forces are evident to most moms
and dads. “I hear parents say it’s like someone flipped a switch and their
early-to-bed, early-to-rise child has suddenly turned vampirish,” adds
Carskadon. But now you know. Young adults aren’t trying to be difficult. It’s
biology, at least in part, and not defiance driving them to stay up longer.
Understanding this, says Carskadon, can help parents support their teen
vampires’ efforts to get enough rest.