Sleepless Nights Common Among Teens

Study Shows 17% of 13- to 16-Year-Olds Have Persistent Sleep Trouble

June 10, 2004 (Philadelphia) -- Insomnia is a widespread and perhaps underrecognized problem among U.S. teens, according to research presented recently at a meeting of sleep experts.

In a study involving interviews with 1,014 teenagers aged 13 to 16, one-third reported having sleep problems at some point during their lives. Among these teens, 94% reported experiencing difficulty sleeping at least twice per week for a month or longer during the previous year. Nearly a third of this group also had another psychiatric illness of some sort.

Nearly 17% of the teens qualified for the clinical definition of insomnia -- trouble falling or staying asleep or achieving restful sleep at least twice a week for a month or more, causing noticeable distress and impairment in their daily lives.

Their insomnia appeared to be chronic or frequently recurrent beginning at an average age of 11. Interestingly, 14% of the 13- to 16-year-old interviewees had an episode of insomnia within the past 30 days.

"The prevalence was a bit surprising," lead researcher Eric Johnson, PhD, a research scientist at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, tells WebMD. The most common problem was difficulty falling asleep. Sleep efficiency, or time spent in bed actually sleeping, was also a significant problem.

Puberty Affects Girls' Insomnia

The teens' sex and socioeconomic levels were the only two significant demographic risk factors that surfaced in this study. Lower socioeconomic level correlated with increased insomnia risk, Johnson says. In addition, girls had a 50% higher risk than boys for insomnia symptoms.

Johnson and his colleagues also found that the risk of developing insomnia among the teen girls correlated with puberty. There was a "significant jump in insomnia" after their first period, Johnson says, with girls being 2.5 times more likely to experience insomnia after their first period than before.

Among the boys experiencing insomnia, no association was found with their pubertal development.

In both groups, no significant difference in insomnia prevalence could be traced to race/ethnicity or parents' marital status.

The teens' parents underwent separate interviews regarding their children's sleep habits. "The agreement between kids and parents is not good," Johnson tells WebMD. "In short, it doesn't appear the parents typically know (about the symptoms)."

The second phase of this study is under way, with 400 of the teens with insomnia now being followed two years later at ages 15 to 18.

Although any chronic sleep problem in a teenager should be evaluated by a health care professional, here are a few tips to help your teen sleep better:

  • Help your teen set a regular bedtime and waking time, and stick to it, even on weekends. This will help his or her body get used to a regular sleep time.
  • Exercise during the day, but avoid strenuous exercise within a couple of hours of bedtime.
  • Keep your teen's bedroom dark, cool, and quiet.
  • Remove distractions from the bedroom, such as the telephone or radio.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Associated Professional Sleep Societies 18th Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, June 5-10, 2004. WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: "Sleep Problems, Age 12 and Older."

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