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Waking the Dead (and grumpy): Teenagers and Sleep

Why is it that getting our teenagers up and going is sometimes such a battle?

We nag them to get up, they want to sleep longer

We’re in a hurry- they can’t seem to get out of bed

They stay up too late…

Actually, it’s not totally their fault.  As kids enter teenage years their circadian rhythm, as well as the rest of their physiology, begins to change. All parents know that for sure! Teens are known for staying up late and sleeping in. During teenage years, melatonin’s release (the sleep hormone) is delayed. Teenagers start getting sleepy (melatonin release) around 11pm and need more time to fall asleep.  8-10 hours of sleep is ideal for teens according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. They need to sleep until around 7:30 AM.

There is a growing pressure on school systems to change school start times based on research in the sleep literature. It’s being met with resistance because of our work schedules, after school programs/sports and parent’s time schedules. It’s a clash between physiology and a society that has, for decades been on a schedule that seems to have trended earlier over the decades.

According to an article in this month’s American Academy of Sleep Medicine journal:

Short sleep in adolescents is associated with poor school performance, obesity, metabolic dysfunction and cardiovascular morbidity, increased depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, risk-taking behaviors, athletic injuries, and increased motor vehicle accident risk.917 Increased motor vehicle accident risk is particularly concerning because young, novice drivers have a higher crash risk when sleep deprived, and motor vehicle crashes account for 35% of all deaths and 73% of deaths from unintentional injury in teenagers.1820

Importantly, a delay in school start time has beneficial impacts on teenage students. Studies show that implementation of later school start times for adolescents is associated with longer total sleep time, reduced daytime sleepiness, increased engagement in classroom activities, and reduced first-hour tardiness and absences.7,2123 Delayed school start times also are associated with reduced depressive symptoms and irritability.21,22 Reaction time improves, and crash rates decline by 16.5%, following a school start time delay of 60 minutes.12,13 Extension of sleep time also facilitates behavioral weight loss interventions in adolescents.24.

There isn’t an easy solution to this clash between physiology and society’s needs. But recognizing it can take some of the stress off families. Let the kids schedule relax on the weekends for sleep, talk to them about “sleepy driving” and remaining alert. Perhaps a nap after school would help some of them. If they seem overly tired, they should be screened by a qualified Dentist in sleep/breathing disorders for airway obstructions and altered craniofacial growth that may be a contributing factor.

Read more about sleep disorders in kids here. 

Citation: Watson NF, Martin JL, Wise MS, Carden KA, Kirsch DB, Kristo DA, Malhotra RK, Olson EJ, Ramar K, Rosen IM, Rowley JA, Weaver TE, Chervin RD. Delaying middle school and high school start times promotes student health and performance: an American Academy of Sleep Medicine position statement. J Clin Sleep Med. 2017;13(4):623–625.

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