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Healthy Teens: Sleep

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

While proper nutrition and regular exercise are well known components of health, many people overlook the importance of adequate rest. Adolescents need an average 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep every night just to function, which is more than adults typically need. However, adolescents are often at risk of sleep deprivation, and experts believe that most teens are sleep-deprived. Sleep deprivation can have negative effects on youths' health. Sleep deprivation has been associated with ADHD, depression, obesity, increased risk of accidents, and learning problems (Carpenter, 2001).

sleep button on keyboardTeens are likely to stay up late on school nights, as they try to adjust to the increasing demands on their time: competitive sports, clubs, homework, employment, hanging out with friends, watching television, playing video games, texting or talking on the phone, chores, and other activities between school and bedtime. On weekends, teens often want to socialize and have fun with their friends and tend to stay up even later.

While teens' busy schedules play havoc with their sleep, their bodies' natural sleep rhythms (called circadian rhythms) shift during adolescence causing them to remain alert and awake later in the night, with a corresponding desire to sleep later in the day. This occurs because during adolescence, the body begins to release melatonin (a hormone that regulates sleep) later in the evening. This later release of melatonin release prevents teens from feeling sleepy until later at night and makes it more difficult for them rise early in the morning. Thus, teens truly have a biological reason for staying up late and grumbling about rising early. Nonetheless, busy schedules and biology need not prevent youth from getting the sleep they need.

Parental Guidelines To Promote Adequate Sleep for Teenagers

There are many things that parents can do to encourage their youth to increase the amount of quality sleep they receive: 1. Parents can help teens to identify and limit caffeinated beverages in the evening. Caffeine has a stimulating effect on the mind and body. Many people are surprised to learn that many sodas contain more caffeine than coffee or tea. As a general guideline, caffeine use should be discontinued at least four to six hours prior to bedtime. Similarly nicotine is a stimulant with many negative health effects and should be avoided altogether. For more information, see the section on substance use in the safety section later in this article.

2. Teens should establish regular sleep and wake times that allow for an adequate amount of sleep each night. By establishing a regular and consistent pattern, the body's biological clock will eventually re-set to coincide with their schedule. Once teens establish these sleep and wake times, they should be careful not to change them too much on weekends and school holidays. The body doesn't know it's a weekend or holiday. When the sleep wake patterns change, the body again attempts to adjust to this change, counteracting the teen's effort to establish a regular pattern. At most, sleep and wake times should not be altered by more than two hours on unstructured days such as weekends and holidays.

In order for youth to establish regular sleep/wake times and receive adequate rest, it is helpful if they set a specific bedtime. It's much more likely that a teen will get more sleep if they say, "I'm going to go to sleep at 9:30pm tonight," than if they say, "I'm going to get to bed earlier tonight." Without a specific time bedtime can keep getting pushed back bit by bit.

Parents play an important role in helping their youth get to bed on time. For example, after discussing why getting enough sleep is so important and how much sleep youth really need, Mom can ask Natalie her opinion about what a reasonable bedtime might be given the amount of sleep Natalie needs, and her other time demands. Natalie can provide input, but in the end, it's Mom decision. Mom can make a rule that Natalie needs to be in bed by a certain time on weeknights and a slightly different time on weekends (but not more than two hours difference). Parents can enforce this bedtime through 2 routes: support and discipline.

To be supportive, parents should make sure that the youth has ample time every day after school to complete organized activities (sports, clubs, etc), homework, and chores as well has have some time for family and friends, and some personal time too. If parents keep their youth out too late in the evening running errands, or allow them to spend too much time in structured activities or unstructured social and recreational pursuits, youth will not have enough time to complete homework and relax before bedtime. Parents should also ensure that youth are getting a healthy dinner at an appropriate time each evening. If youth eat too late in the evening, this can also disrupt natural sleep cycles. Additionally, parents can be supportive by creating a calm and peaceful environment in the home especially around bedtime. Eliminating loud music, bright lights, and boisterous activities will smooth the transition to sleep.

In some cases these supportive techniques may be insufficient and parents may need to provide appropriate discipline to ensure youth get to bed on time. Beyond enforcing a bed time, parents should use other family/house rules to motivate youth to get to bed on time. Because youth at this age do not have the full capability of structuring their time wisely, parents still need to take the lead to help them set limits for themselves through the fair use of curfews; setting limits on TV, computer, and electronic games; and limiting the number of after-school sports, clubs, and other activities.