Insomnia in Teens

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on July 12, 2021
5 min read

Is your teen not sleeping well at night? Many teens don’t get the recommended amount of sleep, between 8 and 10 hours.

It could be insomnia. What are some signs of insomnia in teens? They may be tired during the day and nod off in class or when they’re driving. They may find it hard to stay alert in class, or they may be moody and irritable. They may struggle to get out of bed on time on school days or sleep late on weekends.

Insomnia can put your teen at risk for serious health problems:

Everyone has an internal clock that sets their circadian rhythms -- the cycle of when you sleep and stay awake. During puberty, teens go through changes to this internal clock. Their circadian rhythms may naturally shift to make them want to fall asleep about 2 hours later.

One reason may be that teens produce melatonin -- a hormone that naturally helps you fall asleep -- later at night than children or adults do. This may make them stay up later.

Schedule, school, and stress. Schoolwork and schedules may affect teens’ sleep, too. If they wake up at 6 a.m. to get ready for school, they need to go to sleep by 9 or 10 p.m. Many teens may not be able to fall asleep that early.

High school also may bring extra pressure for teens to stay up late to do homework or cram for exams. Stress often affects teens. They may be anxious about school or dating. Stress is a major cause of insomnia.

Caffeine. Teens who drink beverages with caffeine to stay alert during the day may have a hard time falling or staying asleep at night. Colas, tea, coffee, and energy drinks all may contain caffeine.

Medications. Prescription stimulants, sedatives, and steroids may disrupt sleep patterns in teens.

Devices. Many teens spend a lot of time online or on their mobile devices. They stay up late to text or post on social media. The screen light smartphones and tablets give off makes it harder to fall asleep even after they turn off the devices.

Insomnia can be a symptom of several medical conditions.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder that may affect teens. Tissue blocks the airway during sleep, so they may wake up often to gasp for breath, snore loudly, sweat, or have trouble breathing while they sleep. They may get a poor night’s sleep and have fatigue during the day. Overweight or obese teens are at higher risk for OSA.

Narcolepsy. A less common but very serious sleep disorder in teens is narcolepsy. They may first develop symptoms around age 15 or even younger. Narcolepsy may be underdiagnosed in teens. Teens with narcolepsy may suddenly fall asleep during the day. They may have sudden loss of muscle tone or control (cataplexy) or vivid nightmares.

Sleepwalking. Some teens sleepwalk. It’s more likely if they’re sick with a fever or are under a lot of stress. They may go back to bed on their own, but you may have to gently guide them so they don’t get hurt.

GERD. Teens with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may have trouble sleeping when stomach acid moves up into their throats when they lie down. GERD causes heartburn, a painful symptom that can keep you awake at night.

Fibromyalgia. Sleep problems are one symptom of fibromyalgia, a condition that causes pain in your muscles and bones. It may first appear between ages 13 and 15. Teens who have fibromyalgia may not be able to fall asleep or stay asleep.

Limb movements.Restless legs syndrome (RLS) and periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD) may cause your teen’s legs to twitch and kick in bed. This can keep them from getting a good night’s sleep.

Asthma. Teens with asthma that isn’t well-controlled by medications may wake up often during the night, coughing or trying to breathe.

Depression. Teens may have mood swings or worries about school that keep them awake. Some teens develop depression, a serious mood disorder that can make sleep problems worse.

If your teen has insomnia, talk to your family doctor. They can diagnose medical conditions that cause insomnia. They can refer your teen to a sleep specialist for further diagnosis and treatment if needed.

Don’t let your teen take OTC sleep medicine unless your doctor says it’s OK. These drugs are not a long-term fix for insomnia.

Make a few changes at home to help your teen sleep better:

  • Create a restful atmosphere. About a half hour before bed, suggest that your teen listen to calming music, read, or relax with a warm bath or shower.
  • Avoid stimulants. Encourage your teen to skip caffeine, chocolate, or sugary sodas after 4 p.m. These foods and drinks can keep teens awake later. Check to see if your teen is secretly smoking or drinking alcohol, which can affect sleep, too.
  • Skip late-night eating. Heavy meals eaten late can keep teens awake. Hungry teens should only eat a light snack before bedtime.
  • Set a screen schedule. Teens should shut off their phones, computers, or other electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Light from the screens can make it hard to fall asleep. Texts or notifications can wake them up, too. Either turn the phone off or keep it out of their bedroom until morning.
  • Healthy daytime activities. Teens who are physically active during the day may sleep better at night. Sunlight exposure also helps teens have a healthy internal clock. While teens may need an occasional short nap in the afternoon when they haven’t slept well, try not to let them develop a habit of napping instead of trying to sleep at night.
  • Discourage sleeping in. Some teens don’t need to wake up as early on weekend mornings, but they shouldn’t sleep in for too long. They should try to wake up on weekends no more than 2 hours later than they do on weekdays. This will help them develop a healthy sleep schedule.