The Challenges of Tween and Teen Sleep

Guest Post:  Sara Westgreen is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck.com. She sleeps on a king size bed in Texas, where she defends her territory against cats all night. A mother of three, she enjoys beer, board games, and getting as much sleep as she can get her hands on.

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Any parent of teens will have noticed that even those who enjoy going to school struggle to get up in the morning. It’s a problem parents have lamented from New Jersey to New Mexico.

It turns out, the lack of desire to get up in the morning is not entirely the teenager’s fault. The early start to the school day, according to the New York Times might actually be the problem - not the teenager.

Teenagers’ bodies release melatonin, the hormone that tells our brains to go to sleep, later in the evening than any other age group. This "sleep phase delay" means that many teenagers will not even feel sleepy until nearly 11 p.m.

Since middle and high school start times are around 8:00 am for many students, there isn’t enough time for students to get enough sleep. In Madison, students start class at 7:45, which isn’t enough time for many students to get a full eight hours of sleep.

Lack of sleep has side effects. Increased caffeine usage (coffee and soft drinks) is common. Insufficient sleep can also increase rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers and “tweenagers.”

A 2011 study recommended a later start time to allow students to deal with their bodies schedule needs, but it leads to some logistical issues for the school systems which also offer programs like our award-winning sports, theatre and music programs. Being in school later can be a problem for students who need to work, or provide childcare for younger siblings who could go to school earlier.

If you believe an earlier start time would help your teenagers do better in their classes, you should talk to your local school board. In the meantime, work with your teenager.

One thing that can help to enable teenagers’ brains to release melatonin earlier is to limit screen time before bed. The blue light emitted by phone, tablet and computer screens tells the human brain that it is probably daytime. This confusion delays the release of melatonin. Cell phones are essentially part of many teenagers’ anatomy these days. Powering down these devices an hour before bed can help your teen go to sleep at a more reasonable time.

Of course, teenagers also need to have a sleep-inducing bedroom environment, just like you do. Make sure that they have the right kind of pillows and mattress for their sleep style. A hybrid mattress might be a good fit for teens who toss and turn because it’s quiet. It can also help to create some air flow in their room with open doors and windows or a fan.

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You can also talk to your teenager about creating a bedtime routine - brush their teeth, wash their face, then maybe read a book or magazine or listen to music to tell their brains that it’s time to sleep. They should also try to keep that routine even on the weekends, instead of sleeping in until noon.

If these sleep habit changes don’t seem to be enabling more sleep, teens can also try using melatonin pills.This medication mimics the hormone that brains naturally release at bedtime.

Work with your teen to take charge of his sleeping habits.

Guest Post:  Sara Westgreen is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck.com. She sleeps on a king size bed in Texas, where she defends her territory against cats all night. A mother of three, she enjoys beer, board games, and getting as much sleep as she can get her hands on.