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Go Ask Mom

Teen Sleep: How to help your teen get more shut eye

Posted February 24, 2015
Updated February 25, 2015

Tired teens. Dr. Soon Kwark has seen plenty in her practice as medical director of Rex Family Practice of Wakefield in north Raleigh. But it isn't usually the teens who are coming in to complain about sluggishness and exhaustion.

"It's usually the parents who are saying, 'I think they are sleeping way to much on the weekends or on breaks' or things like that," Dr. Kwark said. "It's usually the parents that notice more."

A new study published in the March 2015 issue of Pediatrics finds that sleep duration has decreased in U.S. teens in the last 20 years. The study pulled data from a survey of more than 270,000 adolescents from 1991 to 2012, according to the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The kids were asked how often they get more than seven hours of sleep and how often they get less. The study found that girls, more often than boys, regularly get less than seven hours of sleep. Black and Hispanic teens, along with those whose parents have a lower educational level, also report getting fewer zzzzs. 

A lack of sleep certainly has its short-term problems. It's hard to concentrate or perform your best when you don't get enough sleep. Teens without enough sleep also can be more irritable, easily angered and less tolerant, Dr. Kwark said.

But it also can translate into lasting problems such as mental health issues, trouble in school, drug use and weight gain, according to the study's authors. Teens' fatigue has even been tied to their higher rate of automobile accidents.

Dr. Kwark said kids' natural sleep cycles change as they grow from tweens to teens. For young children and even tweens, by 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., most are ready to crash. But a teen's body clock is different. It might not naturally sound off that it's time for sleep until 11 p.m. or beyond.

And that means that most teens aren't able to get enough sleep if you factor in the early start times for many high schools in the region. Many must rise at 5:30 a.m. or 6 a.m. to catch the bus or get to school, which often start at 7 a.m. or 7:30 a.m. 

If you do the math, an 11 a.m. bedtime and 6 a.m. wake-up call gives teens just seven hours of shut eye. According to the National Sleep Foundation, teens need between 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night.

This summer, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that high schools start class at 8:30 a.m. or later so high schoolers have more time for sleep. While some school districts have made a change, it's a tricky proposition for others as officials juggle the cost of bussing, time for extracurricular activities and other issues.

"It’s becoming a recognized problem and there are some changes being made," Dr. Kwark said about schools in other parts of the country. 

But, beyond school start times, other factors are likely at play. The study's authors didn't examine what's causing the downward trend in teen sleep, but they made some guesses, including social media, computers, smartphones and stress over college applications, competitive sports and other activities.

Dr. Kwark agrees there are plenty of reasons why teens are getting enough sleep, but the use of smartphones and other gadgets in bed likely top the list.

"I think the difference is this generation is a little bit different than a generation ago," she said. "Folks tend to go to sleep with their phone."

If the phone is by the bed, at the ready in case somebody calls or texts, Dr. Kwark said, "They're not really ready to go to sleep." 

How can you help your teen sleep longer and better through the night? Dr. Kwark shared some tips: 

  • Stow those phones, gadgets and computers in another room. Get the TV out of there too. The bedroom is the place where you go to sleep.
  • Establish a regular sleep routine and pattern. Set a bedtime and stick to it.
  • Exercise. Dr. Kwark said the best time to get physical is right after school, not after dinner, when you want to start winding down. 
  • Consider behavioral therapies such as meditation and mindfulness practices. Simple exercises such as breathing in for five seconds and breathing out for five seconds or tensing and then relaxing different muscles for a few minutes can help.
  • Listen to white noise. While you want devices out of the room, Dr. Kwark said music or sounds of the ocean or rain can help at bedtime.
  • Keep the room nice and dark.

"Setting up the ritual and making sure the stimuli that you're exposed to is at a minimum," she said.

And if your teen wants to sleep for hours on the weekends or breaks? Dr. Kwark said to just let them go.

"I tell folks to wake up when your body tells you to wake up naturally," she said. "Hold off on the naps, if possible. That can disrupt the cycle. If your body is not ready to get until 9 or 9:30 a.m., absolutely."

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