Teens love to label themselves “night owls,” trading stories of all-nighters and sleeping away an entire Saturday. Though teenagers and their sleep habits may be maddening to parents, they’re partly in response to physical changes that occur during puberty. “Teens experience a natural shift in circadian rhythm,” says Johns Hopkins sleep expert Laura Sterni, M.D.
This makes it more difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. Add in early school start times and an increase in homework, extracurricular activities and sometimes a part-time job, and sleep deprivation in teens becomes common. However, says Sterni, it’s important that parents help teens do the best they can, because this age group needs more sleep than we might realize.
Why Teens Need More Sleep Than Younger Kids
So how much sleep is enough? According to Johns Hopkins pediatrician Michael Crocetti, M.D., M.P.H. , teens need 9 to 9½ hours of sleep per night—that’s an hour or so more than they needed at age 10. Why? “Teenagers are going through a second developmental stage of cognitive maturation,” explains Crocetti. Additional sleep supports their developing brain, as well as physical growth spurts. It also helps protect them from serious consequences like depression or drug use.
Teen Sleep by the Numbers
While everyone is accustomed to having a bad morning here and there – feeling irritable, unhappy or even sad, NSF's 2016 Sleep in America poll found that many adolescents exhibit symptoms of a depressive mood on a frequent if not daily basis, and these teens are more likely to have sleep problems.
The NSF poll calculated depressive mood scores for each of the 1,602 poll respondents by measuring adolescents' responses to four mood states (using a scale of "1" to "3" where 1 equals "not at all" and 3 equals "much"):
Felt unhappy, sad or depressed
Felt hopeless about the future
Felt nervous or tense
Worried too much about things
The results showed that about half (46%) of the adolescents surveyed had a depressive mood score of 10 to 14, 37% had a score of 15 to 19, and 17% had a score of 20 to 30; these scores are considered low, moderate and high respectively.
Most notably, those adolescents with high scores ranging from 20 to 30 were more likely than those with lower scores to take longer to fall asleep on school nights, get an insufficient amount of sleep and have sleep problems related to sleepiness. I
n fact, 73% of those adolescents who report feeling unhappy, sad, or depressed also report not getting enough sleep at night and being excessively sleepy during the day.
While many adults may think that adolescents have things easy or don't have much to worry about – the opposite seems true according to the NSF poll.
Most adolescents were likely to say they worried about things too much (58%) and/or felt stressed out/anxious (56%). Many of the adolescents surveyed also reported feeling hopeless about the future, or feeling unhappy, sad or depressed much or somewhat within the past two weeks of surveying.
Research shows that lack of sleep affects mood, and a depressed mood can lead to lack of sleep. To combat this vicious cycle, sleep experts recommend that teens prioritize sleep and focus on healthy sleep habits. Teens can start by getting the 8 to 10 hours of sleep they need each night, keeping consistent sleep and wake schedules on school nights and weekends, and opting for relaxing activities such as reading or taking a warm shower or bath before bed instead of turning on the TV or computer.
Teenagers and Sleep: Help Them Get What They Need
Sterni and Crocetti both recommend that parents take teenagers and sleep seriously. Begin by modeling good sleep habits, such as adhering to a regular sleep schedule, cutting back on evening caffeine, and exercising regularly. They also suggest these teen-specific and time-tested tips.
Schedule a checkup. Pediatricians can educate teens on how much sleep is enough, recommend healthy sleep habits, and screen them for common teen sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, insomnia and circadian rhythm disorders.
Start the day in sunshine. Having breakfast outside or by a sunny window helps regulate the body’s biological clock, making it easier for teens to wake up in the morning and drift off at night.
Encourage the connection. When your teen is well-rested, ask how he felt that day while taking a test or playing a sport. Help him come to the conclusion that sleep improves his outlook—and help him realize how much sleep is enough.
Tie good sleep to car privileges. Sleep deprivation in teens can lead to accidents. “I tell my teenage son he can’t drive to school in the morning if he’s not getting enough sleep,” says Crocetti.
Help teens rethink their schedule. If your teen typically starts homework after evening activities, help him find an earlier time to get started. Ultra-busy schedules may require paring down.
Encourage afternoon naps. Tired teens may benefit from a 30- to 45-minute nap before dinner. This is a better fix for sleep deprivation in teens than sleeping-in, which throws off their body’s sleep cycle.
Ban tech from the bedroom. Using tech at night not only cuts into teens’ sleep time, it also exposes them to a type of light that suppresses the body’s production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, making it tougher to fall asleep.
Encourage schools to move toward later start times. Many middle and high schools are exploring the idea of starting school around 8:30 a.m.—the time recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Talk with your local school board about this issue.
Watch the summer shift. It’s normal for teenagers to want to shift their sleep schedule during the summer. Just make sure they don’t push bedtime too far past the one they had during the school year, advises Sterni. Teens whose schedules shift significantly may find it more difficult to return to an appropriate school sleep schedule and experience problems such as moodiness and excessive daytime sleepiness at the start of the school year. Those with significant shifts in their sleep schedule may need to see a sleep specialist to get back on track in September.