Understanding Teenage Sleep Patterns


Understanding Teenage Sleep Patterns

Tired young woman lying in bed with opened laptop, reading article or watching video

Night after night, teenagers often face the most challenges to getting adequate sleep. The main reason is a natural, biological change to their body’s internal clock. The second reason is electronics.

Adolescents who are chronically sleep deprived are likely to have problems paying attention in school and keeping up with their homework. Lack of sleep can also contribute to unsafe driving habits, impair cognitive functioning, and negatively impact teens’ emotional, physical, and mental health. Getting a good night’s rest is important for all ages, but teenagers may benefit the most from getting enough sleep consistently.

Understanding teenage sleep patterns is the first step to helping a teen improve their sleep. Plus there are things that teenagers – and parents – can do to support them consistently getting a restful night’s sleep, so they can wake up refreshed and ready for the day.

Why Do Teenagers Stay Up So Late?

WWMG Sleep Medicine physician Dr. Robert McCoy explains that during adolescence, an individual’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) lengthens naturally beyond 24 hours. This shifts one’s sleep-wake cycle by as much as two hours.

This natural change to a teenager’s circadian rhythm is called sleep phase delay. Teenagers’ bodies want to stay awake later and sleep in later. It’s difficult for teens to fall asleep early enough to get the sleep they need, and still arrive at school on time the next day ready to learn.

Dr. McCoy further explains, “Most children between the ages of 6 and 12 need a minimum of 9 hours of sleep; some may need as much as 12 hours. Generally, younger children are better able to meet that.

“Teenagers still need 8 to 10 hours, but it’s much harder for them to get enough sleep. Many high schoolers struggle early in the day. Some sleep through their first few periods, essentially.”

Effects of Sleep Deprivation in Teens

Adolescents who are chronically sleep deprived are likely to have difficulty with their schoolwork. Memory, analytical thinking, expansive thinking, and creativity are all diminished by ongoing lack of sleep.

“Poor school performance is the most frequent reason why parents and guardians bring their teenagers to a sleep specialist,” says Dr. McCoy.

Sleep-deprived teens often struggle emotionally, too. They can be even moodier and more irritable than usual. Lack of sleep puts teens at greater risk of anxiety and depression. They are also more likely to engage in high-risk behavior, including drowsy driving.

Hormone Changes Caused by Lack of Sleep

Chronic sleep deprivation also disrupts the endocrine system, the body’s complex network of hormones that control many important functions, including two that are crucial during adolescence: appetite and growth.

“Being sleep-deprived makes us lose inhibitory appetite hormones, creating an imbalance. And we eat to stay awake, meaning we snack to stay awake,” Dr. McCoy says. For that reason, chronic sleep deprivation puts many teens at higher risk for obesity and related health issues such as type 2 diabetes.

Another reason that sleep deprivation is risky for an adolescent’s endocrine system is how much the body grows at that stage in life. Dr. McCoy explains that “some of the hormones that we need to grow and get stronger, and for our brains to develop, are only secreted when we’re asleep.”

The Second Reason Adolescents Get Too Little Sleep

Electronics is the second reason – after circadian rhythm changes – that many adolescents get too little sleep.

Mobile phones, tablets, and laptops – with social media apps, texting, gaming, and 24/7 access to the internet – consistently pull teens away from the 8 to 10 hours of sleep that they need at night. In addition, phones and other electronic devices emit blue light waves that mimic sunlight. This alters the body’s normal light-dark cycle and signals the brain that it’s still time to be awake.

The hormone melatonin is naturally secreted by the body in response to darkness, and helps regulate sleep by calibrating one’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm. During puberty, melatonin is already being released later at night. And exposure to blue light delays melatonin release even further.

What about so-called blue-light filters or apps to modulate blue light emissions? Dr. McCoy warns against relying on any of them. “None of those claims have been validated scientifically.”

How Parents Can Help Teens Get the Sleep They Need

Parents and guardians play an essential role in helping teenagers get the sleep they need. That’s not always easy. Although it may be outright unpleasant and cause conflict, it’s important to have these conversations just the same.

“It’s up to parents and guardians to put up guardrails to safeguard their teens’ health. Some teenagers are simply not going to listen. But it’s a rare child who can [make these changes] on their own,” says Dr. McCoy.

He advises parents to set limits on their adolescent’s use of electronic devices before bedtime. For example, they might designate a mutually agreed-upon “check-in” time to take away cell phones and other electronic devices for the night, so teens can focus on getting to sleep.

In addition to limiting electronics before bedtime and while sleeping, parents can help their teens make lifestyle changes that promote healthy sleep habits.

Recommendations for Creating Good Sleep Habits

To create good sleep hygiene habits, follow these recommendations from the American Thoracic Society:

  • Establish a regular, consistent bedtime and wake-up time, even on weekends. Yes, even on weekends! (In a nod to how elusive this may prove, the American Thoracic Society recommends that on weekends, two hours should be the maximum extra sleep-in time.)
  • Avoid using the bed as a couch or as a place to do homework.
  • Establish a wind-down routine to help the body prepare for sleep. This can include changing into sleep clothes, brushing teeth, taking a warm bath or shower, reading a book or magazine, and/or listening to quiet music. None of these activities should involve electronics. Teens can also set aside some time to pick out their clothes for the next day and to get their backpacks ready.
  • Keep the bedroom as dark, cool, and quiet as possible.
  • Complete any vigorous exercise 2-3 hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid daytime naps. If they must nap, keep it to 20 or 30 minutes at most, by setting an alarm. Teens should not nap within five hours of bedtime.
  • Avoid eating large meals before bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine for at least six hours before bedtime. This includes soda, coffee, tea (unless it’s caffeine-free), energy drinks, and chocolate, especially dark chocolate.
  • Spend time outdoors every day. Natural light helps to regulate our internal clocks, even on overcast or rainy days.

Of course, no matter your age, some of these lifestyle changes are easier than others. However, the goal of helping adolescents improve their sleep is important enough that it merits working patiently through potential parent-child conflicts to support more positive sleep habits. Plus, the health benefits for teens will have positive long-term effects.

Where to Seek Help for Teenagers with Sleep Issues  

“Getting enough quality sleep may become harder as we age. When we teach children and teens the fundamentals of good sleep hygiene, we are giving them knowledge that they can use all their lives,” Dr. McCoy concludes. Practicing these habits can help teens improve their emotional, physical, and mental health, now and for the future.

If your teenager is suffering from consistent sleep deprivation that’s affecting their ability to function in school and daily activities, request an appointment with a WWMG Sleep Medicine Specialist today. We’re here to help.