Teenagers and sleep

It's a familiar scene: you leave for work in the morning, while your teenager still sleeps soundly in bed. Try as you might to awaken them, they just don't seem to be able to get up for school in time. Read on for advice on managing your teen's body clock and helping to ensure they get enough sleep.

Understanding your teen's body clock

"My son David almost missed one of his GCSE’s this summer because he just can't get out of bed in the mornings," says 38 year old Ellen, from Huddersfield. "I have to leave the house at 7.30 and then I'm worrying the whole time, phoning him every 10 minutes to try and make sure he gets up on time for school. But he’s been late several times because he just can’t wake up."

How hormones affect the teenage body clock

Teenagers and their parents have very different body clocks. Teens tend to come alive at night, and want to stay up later, and then struggle to get up in the morning.

When it comes to sleep patterns, there are definite changes in teenagers - particularly around the timing of sleep, explains Neil Stanley, a sleep researcher at the University of East Anglia. 

Scientist David Bainbridge, author of "Teenagers: A Natural History" believes this is due to a 'rewiring' of the brain in adolescence which may mean that the teenage body clock runs more slowly than an adult's, making the day seem longer. When it's 8am for the rest of us, to a teenager, it feels more like 6am.

David also says that teenagers haven't yet developed the mechanism required for registering fatigue. "They just don't realise how tired they are," he says. Then, they struggle to wake up in the morning because their bodies simply need more sleep. 

And, it's not just about biology, according to Jim Horne, director of Loughborough University's Sleep Research Centre. Besides the body clock, there are several factors that make teen sleep patterns distinctive.

The importance of sleep

"In puberty the brain undergoes a bit of reorganisation and sleep provides the opportunity for the brain to do this," he explains. In other words, teenagers need extra sleep to help them change into adults. The time shift could also be explained by simple social issues like young people trying to stay up later than their parents or socialising late, he says. 

Artificial light also disrupts sleep patterns, explains Dr Paul Gringras, director of the Evelina Paediatric Sleep Disorder Service at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital in London. Normally, when light dims in the evening, we produce melatonin which tells our bodies it’s time to sleep. But bright room lighting, TVs, consoles and computers can all emit enough light to stop the natural production of melatonin, tricking our bodies into staying awake.

Other issues with sleep

It's also important to explore other reasons, apart from tiredness, why your teenager might not want to get out of bed and go to school, says Gregory Stores, Professor of Developmental Neuropsychiatry at the University of Oxford. Are they depressed or affected by chronic fatigue syndrome or substance abuse?

Excessive daytime sleepiness can also be caused by breathing difficulties, often caused by enlarged tonsils or adenoids, or neurological disorders such as narcolepsy. 

While it's relatively normal for teenagers to need extra sleep, you can always make an appointment with your GP if you’re concerned about other underlying causes.

Consequences of lack of sleep

Teenagers need to be aware of the significance of persistently having difficulty getting to sleep, of waking a lot in the night and having difficulty getting up in the morning. This is especially worrying if they are tired or falling asleep during the day, feel irritable or depressed and have mood swings, as well as difficulty concentrating, remembering things or making decisions properly.

Lack of sleep has a major impact on concentration. Experts at Loughborough University have identified low attention span, slower thought processes and a drop in IQ as the first signs of tiredness.

Tips for better sleep

  • Keep lights dim at night to encourage melatonin production.
  • Get them out into sunlight in the morning - to switch off melatonin, increasing alertness.
  • Curb caffeine, advises The Sleep Council. For some people, caffeine can reduce the ability to sleep for up to 10 hours after it's consumed. Try a warm milky drink or herbal tea in the evening.
  • Avoid stimulating activities like listening to loud music,playing computer games and watching TV for an hour or more before bed.
  • Don't eat too much too late: A overfull stomach will interfere with sleep (but don't go to bed hungry, either!).
  • If stress or exam nerves are triggering insomnia, calming foods like warm milk, lettuce or turkey can help. Or try the herbal remedy valerian, which calms nerves and promotes sleep.
  • Don't try and catch up on sleep at weekends: Late nights and long lie-ins further disrupt the body clock.
  • Too much junk-food diet, too little exercise, smoking and alcohol will only make sleep more difficult so try and encourage a healthy lifestyle.

Time for a timetable change?

The teenage sleep cycle is something that Dr Paul Kelley, the head teacher of Monkseaton School in Whitley Bay, takes very seriously. Students at the school took part in memory tests, and the results showed they had better concentration later in the day. As a result Dr Kelley has now asked his school governors to consider moving the start time for lessons to 11am so that his students get a lie-in. 

"The real issue is sleep deprivation," he explains. "Young people aren't having the chance to sleep as long as they could because they have to get up earlier than their body tells them to." Professor Russell Foster, chairman of circadian neuroscience at Brasenose College, Oxford, agrees. His tests also suggest that students perform better in the afternoon.

Tips for helping your teenager get up on time

"Remember, there's a biochemical reason why teenagers are more wakeful at night and sleepy in the mornings," explains Suzie Hayman, agony aunt and Relate counsellor. "Don’t tell them off. They can't help it!"

Help your teenager to take responsibility for getting up in the mornings. Let them set their own sleep schedule, around their school or college timetable, so that they get enough quality sleep. Say something like, "I'll give you an alarm call then one follow-up call. Then, it’s up to you. If you end up with detention or, even worse, failing your exams, it's your responsibility." 

Finally, remember, sleep isn't the only way to get rest. Suggest lying down to read a book if your teenager says they can't get to sleep.

teens and sleep

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