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As the piercing sound of my son’s third alarm clock goes off, I walk into his room and find him dead to the world. Waking a 14-year-old boy at 6:45 am is no small task. Each night we set three different alarm clocks and debate the best bedtime to help him wake up refreshed and ready for the day ahead. In search of a better solution, I began to research what really lies behind these challenges to good sleep. Turns out that the inability to fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning has biological beginnings.
Recent research on adolescent sleep has found that the biological clock, actually shifts as children enter adolescence, around age 11. Mary Carskadon of Brown University has conducted extensive research and found that during adolescence the biological clock, or circadian cycle, moves forward in the evening causing teens to have difficulty winding down and falling asleep when parents are ready to for them to go to bed. This biological clock props them up causing them to feel bright-eyed and alert creating a “forbidden” sleep zone. At the point when most adults and young children are winding down, the adolescent body may be revving up. This shift in the internal clock might be easily managed by later bed times and waking times, except that most middle and high schools start their day long before the average adolescent’s body is ready to be awake. Although their bodies want to sleep until late morning or early afternoon, the demands of school require teens to be awake and alert before they’ve had sufficient sleep. Add in homework, part-time jobs, friends, and family obligations and it’s no wonder that most teenagers are grumpy.
Well known for their irritable and often sullen attitudes, sleep deficits only make teenagers moodier. Not only are teens irritable with others but they can experience difficulty regulating their mood and the ongoing sleep deficits impact their ability to learn, particularly in the early mornings of the school day when their bodies are still sending signals that they should be in bed. Reduced reaction times and lack of focus impact their safety as drivers and successful athletes. And when you consider that most teens are getting an average of 7.5 hours of sleep on school nights, almost 2 hours less than their bodies require, it’s easy to see that these negative outcomes are not likely to get better over time.
So what’s a parent to do? Aside from petitioning your school district for later start times or home-schooling your child so you can start the day at noon; there are some things you can do to help your teenager improve their sleep habits and function more effectively.
1. Set a reasonable bedtime. Many adolescents do not have a set bed time or parents try to improve the morning routine by moving bedtimes earlier. Because their bodies are predisposed to be awake later at night it can be helpful to set a consistent bed time around 10:00pm. This time frame works to accommodate their bodies tendency to stay up late while still affording adolescents the possibility of getting close to the 9 hours of sleep that their body needs. If your teen has been staying up late, you may need to gradually push back to this new bed time. With consistency you can make some adjustment in their bed time.
2. Avoid stimulants like caffeine and nicotine. In an age of Frappucinos and energy drinks, it is easy for teens to consume considerable amounts of caffeine throughout the day. Limiting, or better yet eliminating, caffeine from your teen’s diet can greatly improve their ability to sleep at night. At a minimum, you should encourage them to limit caffeine intake to before noon.
3. Create a bed time routine. The simple act of creating a ritual of behaviors around bed time can, in time, help the brain to realize that it is bedtime and facilitate relaxation. Taking a warm bath, turning lights down low, shutting off computers and video games at least an hour before bedtime helps to ease the winding down process. This also sets up good sleep habits for adulthood. You can use this time to increase family time as well. Family conversation or reading can be a quiet activity for the hour before bed. This is not the time for major discussion. Nothing inhibits sleep like fighting with your parents about grades or arguing over curfews.
4. Create a sleep environment. Many teenagers have tvs, iPods, computers, video games, and other distractions in their bedrooms. While great during the day, these electronics create a distraction that is not conducive to sleep at night. If you can’t remove them from the room try to conceal these items at bedtime in a cabinet or on shelf. At a minimum turn them off as part of your winding down process. Even if you can’t get your teenager to make their bed in the mornings, encourage them to do so before bedtime. A comfortable bed can go a long way toward easing the transition to sleep. A cooler bedroom temperature can also facilitate sleep.
5. Use light to help signal the brain when it’s time to sleep and time to wake. Turn the lights low as bed time is approaching and make sure the bedroom is as dark as possible when trying to sleep. Light can be a big signal for the body to sleep or wake so use it to your advantage. In the mornings, open curtains and blinds as soon as the alarm goes off. Still having a hard time getting up? Try using an automatic timer to turn on a light in the bedroom about 10 minutes before the alarm goes off. This can be a great trick for the winter months when most teens have to wake up when it’s still dark outside.
6. Use sounds to relax the mind and drown out distractions. Just as many young children fall asleep to the peaceful sound of a parent reading a bedtime story, adolescents may find an audio book to be useful in getting themselves to sleep. Listen to audio books at a level that is just audible and remind your teen that this is not the time to catch up on the latest reading assignment from English class. Choose a story that is not overly exciting, possibly an old favorite so that they won’t be focused on following the plot. A childhood favorite can be an excellent choice. Another option is to use white noise. You can purchase relaxation CDs or sound machines online. Adolescents have many social, academic, and family issues on their minds, white noise can help them to turn off their thoughts and relax.
7. Pay off that sleep debt but only in small increments. If your adolescent is still not getting 9 hours of sleep on weekdays, it is ok for them to try to “catch-up” on the weekends. However do not let them change their sleep and wake times by more than a couple of hours. Maintaining a regular sleep pattern can help ease their ability to fall asleep and wake up rested. If they sleep in on the weekend, try to wake them within 2-3 hours of their usual weekday waking time and encourage them to get to bed within 2-3 hours of their typical bedtime. While naps can help, limit them to no more than 45 minutes in the afternoon.
8. If you find your teenager has excessive sleepiness or continues to struggle getting to sleep, it may be time to check in with your family doctor. While strange sleep habits are common among this age group, it’s always a good idea to check in with a medical professional if you have concerns. Depression and anxiety can have sleep-related symptoms as do some medical conditions and drug or alcohol abuse.