Most teenagers who I ask about their “bedtimes” tell me that they go to bed at 11pm or later. Since they get up for school at 5 or 6am, they are only getting about 6-7 hours of sleep each night. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 90 percent of high school students in the United States get inadequate sleep. Teenagers require about 9 hours of sleep per night for optimal health, but the typical adolescent gets only 6.75 hours of sleep on school nights, according to the latest research. This is not enough.
Chronic sleep loss can have significant consequences. Some of these consequences include:
- Increased chance of automobile crashes (up to 65% and 70% in some studies)
- Increased chance of sports injuries (68% increase in one study)
- Increased depression and suicidal ideation
- Increased substance abuse
- Increased risk-taking and riskier sexual behavior
- Increased school violence and bullying
- Increased insulin resistance and diabetes
- Increased stress response and inflammatory response
- Increased risk of obesity
- Increased risk of heart disease and aggressive forms of cancer
- Decreased emotional intelligence and decreased empathy
- Compromised immune functioning
- Reduced attention and problem-solving skills
- Reduced academic performance
These are all scary consequences of chronic sleep loss!
During puberty, adolescents’ brains are biologically programmed to fall asleep later at night due to a shift in their melatonin release and “circadian rhythms. They often are not tired until much later and then struggle to wake up early for school. Some school districts are pushing back the start times for their high schoolers in order to accommodate these natural circadian rhythms; a lot of research endorses this shift.
Until more school districts change their schedules, though, how can you support healthy sleep and encourage your teen to develop good sleep hygiene?
Here are some helpful do’s and don’ts for good sleep hygiene for the entire family:
- Set and enforce healthy bedtimes based on wakeup times and how many hours of sleep is needed.
- Maintain a consistent schedule for going to bed and waking up throughout the week, including weekends. Get up at the same time every day, no matter what time you fall asleep. Avoid using the snooze button!
- Establish regular, relaxing bedtime routines. This might include taking a bubble bath or warm shower, washing your face, brushing your teeth, practicing meditation or deep breathing exercises, reading a book, or listening to soothing music.
- Avoid having the TV on while falling asleep. Most experts recommend not having a television in the bedroom. If background noise is needed for sleep, consider a podcast, relaxing music, or white noise (i.e., from a fan, air purifier, or phone app).
- If screens must be used close to bedtime, consider dimming the light or putting the screen on a blue setting, as this is easier on the eyes.
- Sleep in a room that is dark, quiet, comfortable, and cool. Consider investing in “blackout curtains.” Perhaps set your thermostat a few degrees cooler than during daytime hours. Make sure your mattress and pillow are comfortable. Some individuals like wearing a sleep mask and/or ear plugs.
- Use your bedroom only for sleep. Do not use your bed for work, gaming, TV watching, reading, or other activities, as this can confuse the mind and body.
- Watch what you eat in the 2-3 hours before bedtime; avoid a big meal or anything too spicy. A small snack before bed is ok.
- Exercise regularly to assist with sleep; finish your work out a few hours before bedtime.
- Avoid naps, if possible. Try to limit naps to 30-45 minutes. Anything longer will interfere with nighttime sleep.
- Start turning off and dimming lights in the home about one hour before bed. This cues the mind and body to prepare for sleep.
- Avoid any stimulating conversations, conflicts, or arguments before bedtime, as this is likely to activate the mind and body.
- Limit caffeine consumption throughout the day; read labels since caffeine is in more products than we realize. Try to avoid caffeine completely within 6 hours of bedtime.
- Set aside some “worry time” each day to write down any issues that are bothering you or concerning you; commit to leaving those worries behind until tomorrow. Do this at least an hour before bedtime.
- If you do not fall asleep within 20-30 minutes, go to another room and do something boring or relaxing, such as reading or listening to music. After 15 minutes, return to bed and try to sleep again. If you still can’t sleep after 30 minutes, get up again. Repeat this routine as many times as necessary. Don’t stay in bed! Tossing and turning may lead to frustration, which makes falling asleep even more difficult.
Consult with a doctor if you or your child are snoring loudly, falling asleep during the day, or regularly waking up feeling tired and unrested. Those can be signs of an underlying medical concern. You may also consider seeing a mental health professional if anxious thoughts and rumination are preventing you or your child from getting a healthy night’s sleep.
Theresa Black, LISW-S is a mental health professional living in Columbus, Ohio and practicing for nearly twenty years. She works at Directions Counseling Group and specializes in child and adolescent therapy.
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