Between school, peer pressure, sports, friends, and hormones, teens have a lot on their plates. On top of all that, research shows that many of them are constantly sleep deprived, which is bad news for their physical and mental health.
It may seem like your teen is wired to stay up late every night and, in fact, that's partially true. But you can still encourage a sleep routine that works with their daily schedule and make sure they are following a few simple rules for restful nights. Here's how to do it and why it really matters.
Why Teens Can't Sleep
If your teenager wants to stay up late, there may be a biological reason for it. Children's internal clocks, called circadian rhythms, shift slightly around the time they go through puberty, says Judith Owens, MD, MPH, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children's Hospital. Their brains don't start making melatonin, a hormone that helps us fall asleep, until later in the evening.
On top of that, teens have a slower sleep drive than young children, which means they stay awake longer, even when they're sleep deprived. "It is harder for them to naturally fall asleep much before 11 at night," Owens says.
They also spend too much time with electronic devices like cell phones and tablets, says Cora Breuner, MD, chair of the Committee on Adolescence for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
At night, the light from these screens can interfere with the brain's melatonin production. Plus, activities like texting and playing video games keeps kids alert. "It's impossible for them to wind down when they have so much going on right at their fingertips," Breuner says.
But They Still Need Plenty of Sleep
Teenagers need at least 8 hours of sleep a night. "And some teens actually need 10 hours, especially if they're particularly busy and physically active throughout the day," Breuner says.
Unfortunately, most of them don’t get that much. In one survey, 75% of 12th graders said they got less than 8 hours of sleep a night -- and only 3% got 9 hours or more. That can be dangerous.
"Teenagers brains aren't fully developed yet, and they already might not be making the smartest choices when it comes to high-risk behaviors," Breuner says. "When you add fatigue on top of that, it gets worse." For example, they may be more likely to run red lights while driving or gulp down energy drinks to stay awake.
Sleep-deprived teens have a higher risk for depression and mood swings, and they can have trouble focusing in school. They can also mistake sleepiness for hunger, which could cause them to overeat or choose fatty, sugary foods over healthy ones.
What You Can Do
Even though your teen is becoming an independent adult, you should still monitor their sleep schedule, Owens says. "Parents can set limits on their child's activities and be a good role model in terms of making sleep a priority," she says. A few things you can try:
- Collect devices at night. Keep a basket in a common area of your home where all family members place their smartphones, tablets, and the like at 9:30 every night. "Kids might push back and say they need to communicate with their friends, but parents need to put their foot down and say 'No'," Breuner says. If you set a good example by also doing this with your own phone, she says, your kids may be less likely to complain.
- Don't let sleep slide. If your teens are involved in sports, work, and school projects, it can seem like there aren't enough hours in the day to get everything done. But staying up late to finish homework can do more harm than good, Owens says. Instead, teach your kids time management skills so they can get everything done during the day. If they're still over-scheduled, it might be time to think about dropping an activity or to talk with their teachers about the problem.
- Work backward from school's start time. Many school districts around the country are beginning to shift their start times later, thanks to a 2014 recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics. But no matter when your teen's day starts, it's important to plan for enough sleep. "If they have to be up at 5:30 to catch the 6:00 bus, they should probably be in bed right at 9:30," Breuner says. "That means you start getting ready -- make sure homework's done, dinner's eaten, clothes are laid out for the next day -- starting at least an hour before that."
- Cut their caffeine. Soda is not the only source of caffeine in teens' diets today. They also drink more energy drinks and coffee than ever before. "And parents don't realize how much caffeine is in things like green tea or some sports drinks," Breuner says. Teens should have enough energy to get through the day without relying on caffeine. If they don't, they need more sleep, not an artificial buzz.