Two sleep experts offer advice for parents and caregivers of teenage children who can’t seem to get enough sleep
Sleep problems among teenagers are common: While most teens need 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night, research shows that the vast majority of U.S. teenagers get far less. Sleep deprivation among teens can threaten mental well-being, hinder academic performance, and contribute to physical health problems. For parents and caregivers of teens, that’s concerning—but there are a number of ways to promote healthier sleep habits with your teenager.
Aarti Grover, a clinical assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine and medical director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at Tufts Medical Center, and Alison Kole, M04, a School of Medicine alumna and host of a podcast called “Sleep is My Waking Passion," recently shared their advice for parents of teens struggling to get enough sleep.
“Teens are chronically sleep deprived,” said Kole. “And we need to start talking about why that is.”
Sleep and School
Teens aren’t set up for sleep success in today’s society, said Kole. That’s because their circadian rhythms—the body’s internal clock—are naturally shifted later compared to younger children and adults. As a result, their brains secrete melatonin (a hormone our bodies produce to spur sleep) later in the day.
While it might feel normal to an adult to go to bed at 10 p.m., teens usually don’t get sleepy until a couple hours later, and naturally wake up later in the morning. “This is something intrinsic to the biology of being human,” said Kole. “You cannot change this.”
Teens’ circadian rhythms make high school start times a legitimate obstacle to getting healthy sleep, said Kole. Grover recommends an ideal start time of 9 a.m., while Kole emphasizes that most teens would benefit from starting their days closer to 10 a.m. A practical compromise, said Kole, would be a start time of 8:30 a.m., an hour later than most schools typically start. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends that schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Kole encourages parents who are concerned about their teen’s sleep to contact their school administrators about shifting school start times.
“We need to effect systemic change,” she said. “Teens cannot and should not be subjected to societal standards that they need to be up earlier than their biology allows.”
Along with school start times, pressure from academics, extracurriculars, and social situations can both stress teens out and take up their time, further delaying sleep, said Grover. If parents notice that their teen just doesn’t have enough time on the weekdays to wind down from activities, they might need to scale back on the extracurriculars.
When teens don’t get enough sleep, they’re at higher risk for other health challenges, such as depression, weight gain, diabetes, and substance use, in addition to poor school performance. “They may have difficulty concentrating, poor memory, worsened thinking, and behavioral issues, too,” said Grover. Due to those symptoms, some sleep-deprived teens may be misdiagnosed with attention disorders when what they really need is more sleep, she said.
“We need to effect systemic change. Teens cannot and should not be subjected to societal standards that they need to be up earlier than their biology allows.”
Creating A Sleep Routine
The good news is that there are myriad ways to help your teen sleep, starting with sleep hygiene. A few simple routines can make sleep easier for teens, such as maintaining consistent sleep and wake times—even on the weekend. Teens might be tempted to “catch up” on sleep by sleeping in on the weekends, but doing so can cause even more confusion for teens’ circadian rhythms.
If waking up at normal school hours on the weekends is too much to ask of your teen, consider a compromise where the teen is getting just an additional hour or so of sleep, said Kole.
Try to prioritize time for winding down after school and extracurriculars, said Grover. If a teen doesn’t get home until 8 p.m. but still needs to eat dinner and do their homework, that’s a recipe for poor sleep. She recommends allowing at least an hour before bed for teens to wind down without the stress of homework or extracurriculars.
Part of creating a calming routine is dimming the lights. “The human circadian rhythm is dictated by light,” said Kole. About an hour or two before bed, begin to use lamps instead of bright overhead lights, and turn off TVs and smartphones, Kole suggests. These steps can help teens’ brains trigger sleepiness more quickly, she said. It can also prevent teens from spending further nighttime hours scrolling through social media, playing video games, or watching TV.
Kole recommends keeping electronic devices out of the bedroom completely, at all times of day, and using an “old-school” alarm clock instead. “Maybe you have a common area where they use their computer. They don’t use it in their bedroom, they don’t do their homework sitting on their bed—the bed is for sleeping,” she said.
Kole also suggests keeping the bedroom dark and cool, at about 68°F, and using eye masks, room-darkening shades, and white noise machines if light and noise are disrupting a teen’s sleep.
Tired teens also may be more likely to abuse caffeine via coffee and energy drinks, said Kole. But using caffeine further delays teens’ desire to sleep, making them more sleep deprived the next day. Instead, she recommends avoiding caffeine after 2 p.m.
One key to making these changes permanent is to ensure that you’re being a role model for good sleep hygiene, said Kole. “It starts by leading by example—you have much more of an impact on your children than you realize.”
When to See a Sleep Doctor
While it’s common for today’s teenagers to struggle to get enough sleep, some sleep issues may be signs of a more serious medical problem, such as insomnia or sleep apnea. If the above tips don’t make a difference for your teen, and they’re still struggling in school or dealing with sleep-deprivation-induced mood changes, Grover and Kole recommend seeing a specialist to determine if something else may be the cause.
Sleep apnea is a medical condition that causes breathing problems and restlessness while sleeping. If your teen snores a lot, that may be a sign of sleep apnea, said Kole. Sleep apnea is treated with a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine or, if necessary, removing the tonsils. Rarer sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy or frequent, distressing nightmares, could also contribute to poor sleep quality.
Grover recommends that parents pay attention to their teen’s behavior at night. If they’re waking up in the middle of the night or getting out of bed during the night, ask them why.
A sleep specialist will be able to diagnose any sleep disorders and offer additional tips and guidance on healthy sleep.
Taking supplements with melatonin can help teens with insomnia, Grover said, but melatonin supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Kole recommends looking for brands that have a label from the United States Pharmacopeial Convention, which indicates that an independent organization reviewed the supplement’s manufacturing process.
Teenagers should rarely use more than five milligrams of melatonin, said Grover. Kole said most teens and adults don’t need more than two milligrams and recommends that parents only give their teen melatonin if it’s been recommended by a sleep specialist.
Melatonin shouldn’t be considered until a teen has tried other methods to improve sleep. “The bottom line is that sleep needs to be made a priority, through behavioral change and good habit formation,” said Kole.