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Health & Parenting

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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.
WebMD Magazine - Feature

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.

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