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Sleep Tips

A Closer Look at Tired Teens

While attending a recent early childhood conference, I had the opportunity to hear world-renowned neuroscientist Pat Levitt share his latest insights on how the brain develops and functions. While his presentation primarily focused on the brain's early development during the first five years, he made a comment that got me thinking about teenagers and sleep – a topic that as the parent of three teens is of both personal and professional interest, and one I thought would interest you as well.

So what did Professor Levitt say that immediately shifted my focus from baby brains to teens and sleep? It was a simple comment he made about some of the approaches we take to raising kids that make no sense based on actual brain science… or as he aptly called them, “brainless policies."

One sleep-relevant observation he made pertained to school start times that directly conflict with children's biological clocks. Most of our nation's young school age children generally start classes later in the morning, usually around 8:30 a.m., while our middle school and high school age kids are routinely expected to rise and shine much earlier – often by 7:30 a.m., if not before.

Regardless of whether you look to your own parenting experiences or to the science of age-specific sleep patterns, it is clear that, when left to their own biorhythms, young kids routinely go to bed and wake up earlier than teenagers do, yet get to start school later. In Professor Levitt's mind – and a great many other researchers, physicians and educators – this makes absolutely no sense.

With teenage sleep on my mind, I figured it would be helpful to review some eye-opening information from the National Sleep Foundation, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Here's an overview of what we need to know when it comes to teens and sleep.

  1. Sleep is important, no matter your age. First and foremost, it's worth reinforcing that getting a good night's sleep is unquestionably important, a statement of scientific fact that does not change during adolescence (despite what your teen may want you to believe).
  2. Teens aren't getting enough sleep. This will not likely come as a surprise, but teenagers, as a whole, don't do such a great job of prioritizing sleep. While on average teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18 generally require 8 to 10 hours of sleep in any given 24-hour period, they often get much less. One study reports that only 15 percent of teenagers say that they get more than the bare minimum of 8 hours of sleep on school nights.
  3. Biologically determined sleep patterns – and later bedtimes – are predictable. Snapchat and screen time aren't the only culprit for keeping teens awake at night (although they certainly can be a contributing factor!). Children's biological clocks naturally delay as they enter adolescence. When teens are left to their own devices (figuratively rather than literally speaking), they are naturally inclined to fall asleep later and wake up later during adolescence. This recognized delay in their biological clock makes a bedtime before 11:00 p.m. predictably unrealistic for many teens and, as one might imagine, makes waking up early and getting the recommended amount of sleep before school a common challenge for a teen.

The science of teen sleep has apparently not gone unnoticed. In fact, two decades ago Edina, Minnesota reportedly became the first US school district to use the “teens and sleep" research to justify a shift to a later school start time for teens (from 7:20 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.) – a shift that has resulted in all sorts of desirable outcomes, such as increased attendance and graduation rates and decreased depression and emotional problems. In her May NY Times article on The Science of Adolescent Sleep, pediatrician Perri Klass shared insights from a recent conference, focusing on the same subject of adolescent sleep, health and school start times. She spoke to the detrimental effects the lack of sleep can have on teens, ranging from the inability to maintain focus and alertness to the dangers of “ drowsy driving" and adolescent risk taking.

Between the substantial research and Professor Levitt's statement regarding “brainless policies" and school start times, the take-home messages are consistently clear: Sleep during the teenage years is critical to our children's overall health and well-being, and the case for a later school start time for teens – one that involves starting no earlier than 8:30 a.m. – really does seem like a no-brainer!

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