Practically every night I am serenaded by the sounds of a teenager rambling through the house, and thumping, dancing, or bumping in her room that is above my office. I know I shouldn’t be surprised to hear her drop books to the floor well past midnight, or giggle on the phone when her brothers are sleeping in the room nearby. All of these sounds tell me what many other parents know – teenagers fall asleep as well as some teething toddlers.
According to numbers released by the National Sleep Foundation, as few as 15% of teens are getting even 8.5 hours of sleep each night, when at minimum they should really be getting at least 9.25 hours each night. On school nights these hours of rest are even more important.
Why do teens have such crazy sleeping patterns?
I remember well the years of staying up late, loving to sleep later, yet also seeming to run through life on limited sleep. I also participated in a research project on circadian rhythms, those natural tendencies our bodies have to adjust to sleeping and waking cycles. The biological changes that teenagers go through bring about changes in their sleep patterns. It is typical and natural for teens to shift their sleeping habits to later bedtimes, often not falling asleep before 11:00 pm. When teens have to be at school and functioning by 7:00 or so, it is easy to see why they are tired and resist waking in the morning.
Another habit that tends to add to the poor sleep habits of teens is that they often stay up even later on weekends and sleep later in the morning. Their bodies simply don’t have enough time to adjust to these different sleep patterns.
Why is sleep important for teens?
- Rest is needed for keeping up with the demands of academics and sports.
- Sleep deprivation can be a risk for teens who are driving or working at part-time jobs and might be more inclined to fall asleep behind the wheel or while doing a work-related task.
- Poor sleep habits contribute to things like depression and anxiety.
- Unhealthy sleep habits contribute to skin problems like acne.
- Teens are already dealing with surging hormones, and sleep disruptions can make them even more prone to outbursts and frustrations that they don’t deal with well.
How can parents help their teens get better sleep?
Now that I have 2 teenagers in the house adequate sleep is even more of a priority. As a parent I know the demands that their lives have and how important sleep is, but I need to do more than just nag them to go to bed. We have instituted some practices that help them keep reasonable bedtimes, allow for them to still be independent (not many teens want to be tucked in with a story at 8 pm), and have enough energy and enthusiasm for life the next day.
Make a sleep record. Work with your teen to determine how much sleep is actually accrued each night, and what the habits are in the 3 hours before falling asleep. This information will help both of you find ways to improve those numbers.
Prioritize the evening. Homework is definitely an issue for our oldest who is in college. Studies come first, but she can intersperse those with chatting with friends, hanging out with family, or just veg’ing on the couch. Those things that require the most mental and physical energy come first. It helps to set the tone for the evening into a natural slow-down.
Gradually reduce electronics. Between the television, video games, cell phones, iPods, and computers, it is unrealistic to think that teens can have access to all of those right up until they fall asleep and not be interrupted by their blinks, beeps, and constant updates. By about 10:00 we have all of the main lights in the house turned off, and our teens know that they need to limit their technology – laptops only for homework and televisions off. Our sons like to fall asleep listening to the radio or books on CD, but the volume must be low and not distracting others.
Create a cozy room. Warm, comfortable bedrooms are more likely to help teens fall asleep. Help your child create an environment that comforts him and helps him relax. This could include window blinds that block glares from outdoor lights, cozy bedding, options for light music, or scents like lavender.
Make it a habit. In our home the habits are most important. Even our dog knows when it is time to go to bed, just by the adjustments in surroundings. Each night our kids have routines, everything from standard teeth brushing to snuggling with pets. Establishing routines helps signal the brain that it is time to slow-down and prepare for sleep.
Don’t forget about food and nutrition. The foods and beverages your teen chooses will also likely impact their sleep habits in some way. Caffeine, sugars, and carbohydrates can influence the energy levels your kids experience. When you create a sleep record with them, include their foods, especially those they eat from supper and beyond. Also consider what they are eating throughout the day. My daughter feels most tired in the early afternoon, so we are adjusting her lunch to compensate for her sleepy feelings right when she needs to be alert in classes – fewer carbs and more fruits and veggies.
Be ready for the morning. Mornings just aren’t pretty things for most teens. In order to make the morning less chaotic, we make sure our kids plan ahead the night before so they aren’t scattered the next day. They also have morning routines and know how long it will take to get things done before they are ready for school. Just as we have a technology wind-down at night, we have a slow-start policy for them for the morning. Until their chores are complete and they are ready for school they can’t be checking out Facebook or catching up on emails. Those activities just suck them in and they lose track of time, and don’t help them get energized for the day.
I’m realistic enough to know that telling a teen to go to bed at 9:00 pm will be about as successful as telling a toddler to read himself a bedtime story. Instead of arguing over the biological inevitable, I need to focus on helping my teens adjust their habits so that they can get as much sleep as possible, and get it consistently. I at least know that when I also hear my daughter’s cell phone (the one she must have pushed out from under her pillows in the middle of the night) vibrate through the ceiling above me that she is ignoring that tone as well as my own calls for her to (in my mother’s words), “Rise and shine!”