Sleep and Teenagers

teensleepTeenagers sleep less than they did as pre-teens, and there is a lot of pressure on them to do so. Social activities, part time jobs and a natural tendency to be more alert in the late evening all take their toll – but high school still generally starts early in the morning. The net result is that most teenagers do not get enough sleep. What may be a surprise to most parents is that teenagers’ sleep requirements are for at least as many hours as younger children!

The discretion to set their own bedtime is usually important to teenagers, but their sleep need is something they are not best positioned to make sensible decisions about, particularly as they usually feel wide awake late at night. There is a natural shift in biological clock during the teen years, which means that teenagers are sleepy in the morning and alert at night. Many parents do not realize that their teens are sleep deprived. Sending their 10 year old to bed at 9pm while the teen is still up, they don’t understand that in fact the older child needs just as much sleep!

The 2006 Sleep Poll by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) found that nearly half of teenagers sleep less than 8 hours on school nights – significantly less than the recommended 9 – 9.5 hours.

Most teenagers sleep in at the weekend to try and catch up on their sleep, which makes the problem even worse as it means they are even more likely to stay up late on Sunday night, a vicious circle that makes them more and more sleepy in the long run.

Teenagers’ sleep deprivation is causing lots of problems.

  • 28% of high school students fall asleep in school at least once a week
  • Insufficient sleep correlates strongly with lower grades
  • More than a quarter of teenagers report being too tired to exercise
  • The NSF poll also found that lack of sleep in teenagers leads to irritability, anxiety and depression (see our article about depression and teenagers in this issue)
  • Worse still, the majority of fall-asleep driving accidents are caused by young people

As a parent, it is important to help your teenager get the sleep he or she needs. Some of the crucial elements to achieve this include: Exposure to light; Bed time routine and sufficient time for sleep; Temperature of the bedroom; and Management of caffeine intake.

Exposure to light:

Perhaps the most important thing you can do to alleviate your teenager’s sleep problem is to ensure they get exposed to bright light (preferably sunlight) as early as possible in the morning. Sunlight helps set the biological clock and doing this can help minimize the effect of the teenager’s sleep clock naturally changing.

In the evening, encourage dim lights or sunglasses so that the body gets ready for sleep earlier.

Bedtime routine and sufficient time for sleep:

The bottom line is that your teenager’s sleep needs to be a priority for you and them. If everything else is more important than sleep, problems are almost unavoidable. Part time jobs, parties, using the PC and telephone late at night, extra-curricular activities – these are all good and helpful things but given the dramatic effect of sleep deprivation on schooling, if school comes before these things then sleep should too.

You should review your teenager’s sleep patterns and social commitments together and come up with a plan that allows them a MINIMUM of nine hours in bed every night. In addition, you should have at least an hour before bedtime when use of the PC, watching television and talking on the phone are discouraged. Instead encourage your teen to enjoy relaxing activities like a warm bath, reading for pleasure or listening to (quiet) music. By bedtime your teenager should be relaxed and sleepy!

Temperature of the bedroom:

Teenagers sleep better if their bedroom is cool and dark. Getting to sleep is associated with a body temperature drop and a cool bedroom is conducive to sleep. This is why a warm bath immediately before bed is a good idea if your teenager has trouble dropping off to sleep. The bath elevates the body temperature and the cool room allows this warmth to be lost, promoting sleep.


Your teenager should be educated on the effect of caffeine on sleep. Sleepy teenagers often use coffee or coke to get them through the day without falling asleep. Caffeine has its uses and if it helps your teenager wake up in the morning a cup of coffee is OK. But what many people don’t realize is that the half-life of caffeine in the body is about five hours. So if you have a cup of coffee, five hours later half of the caffeine is still active in your blood stream. A good rule of thumb for teenagers is to stick to decaffeinated drinks after lunchtime.

Using these tips, most teenagers’ sleep habits can be improved so that they are alert during the day, getting to sleep at a reasonable time and not using the weekends to catch up on their sleep. However, if you follow these suggestions and your teenager is still having sleep problems, you should make it a priority to consult a doctor in case there are any underlying sleep disorders.

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