Teenage years are some of the most formidable times in our lives. It’s when people grow out of childhood and head into adulthood; our bodies change, our school schedules ramp up, and new responsibilities are formed.
Adolescence is both exciting and stressful, which forces us to ask this question: How much sleep do teenagers need? Do they need more than the typically-prescribed 7-8 hours for adults?
According to research, as little as 15 percent of teenagers are getting enough sleep. We’re going to dive into why that is, along with what is happening to our bodies (and minds) as people enter adolescence, and how to make sure teenagers are getting an adequate amount of Zzzs.
Note: The content on Sleepopolis is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t be taken as medical advice, and it shouldn’t take the place of medical advice and supervision from a trained professional. If you feel you may be suffering from any sleep disorder or medical condition, please see your healthcare provider immediately.
What Happens During Our Teenage Years?
First off, it’s important to recognize that a lot is changing inside and out when you’re a teenager. (And just to clarify, a teenager is a young person whose age falls within the range from 13-19.) When people fall into this age range, it means they are maturing physically, emotionally, and intellectually.
Bodies are changing, voices might be dropping, hair might be growing, and hips might start to curve. Emotionally, teenagers are also developing new hormones that cause mood swings, while they are beginning to develop more independence, a sense of values, and sexual identity. Intellectually, the brain is remodeling itself, which influences our decision-making. Teens are also being introduced to more complex studies in school, whether that’s algebra, creative literature, or American history.
Teenagers also experience a biological shift when it comes to their circadian rhythm. They naturally fall into a later sleep-wake cycle, meaning melatonin is released later in the evening (around 11 pm) and drops later in the morning. There have been many debates around school start times because of this, which we’ll dive into more below.
Woof — that is a lot of change. And while all of what we noted above are different types of new experiences faced in adolescence, there is one specific thing that fuels all of these important processes. Yep, you guessed it: it’s sleep.
Why Sleep Matters
For teenagers, sleep is an essential tool for healthy brain development. While asleep, so much is going on: your brain is forming new pathways that help you learn and remember information, while your body is repairing your heart and blood vessels. Deep sleep leads to your body releasing hormones that promote normal, healthy growth in teens, too. Lastly, getting enough quality sleep simply helps you function well throughout the day. With teens and their typical jam-packed schedules, it’s important they get enough sleep so to take on their day with energy and wakefulness.
Long story short: Sleep is a critical biological component that is needed to function, grow, and be our best selves. It’s just as important as eating well and exercising, yet it often is not emphasized as important as our diet and fitness regimes.
Sleep and School
There’s an interesting debate going on right now about school and sleep, especially for teenagers. It’s complex — teenagers are staying up later and later to cram in their homework after a long day of class and extracurricular activities. And, like we mentioned above, they are naturally falling into a later sleep-wake cycle, so are staying up later. The problem is they are getting up early in order to make the first bell at school, leading to sleep deprivation and a vicious cycle of stress and sleepiness.
Many doctors and education administrators are starting to advocate for later school start times. For example, a study conducted in Minneapolis took seven high schools and moved their start times from 7:25 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. The outcomes? They found significant boosts in attendance, grades, and moods, suggesting a later start-time led to more adequate sleep, and thus better intellectual, mental, and physical health for teens.
In another study that looked at sleep and grade performance among 3,000 high school students in New England, students who reported B’s or better got 17-33 minutes more sleep on school nights and went to bed 10-50 minutes earlier than students with C’s and below. Lastly, a study conducted by researchers at McGill University and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal found children with better sleep performed better in math and languages. While the children studied were 11 years old (not yet teenagers) the findings do suggest a connection between academic performance and sleep
Interestingly, back in 2014, the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) worked with U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgren to introduce a bill that addresses this issue between adolescent health and school start times. Unfortunately, this bill never passed, but in 2017 it was reintroduced. Today, there is a large nationwide discussion around school start times, and more middle and high schools around the country are starting to consider moving up the time they start class every morning.
Sleep and Sports
The teen years — when our bodies are changing — is often also when people become more active and serious about sports, too.
Participating in sports has great benefits for teens. During these years, agility skills, motor coordination, power, and speed develops and improves, as well as cognitive and psychosocial development. Not only is exercise important for adolescents, but team sports help with skill-development such as teamwork, communication, fair play, adherence to rules, and honesty.
Sleep has an enormous impact on athletic performance within teens. Studies have found that even just moderate sleep deprivation has the same effect on reaction time as being drunk. Others show athletes who don’t get eight hours of sleep are nearly two times more likely to get injured. Thus, the more active a teen is, the most sleep they need. And since many teens are already sleep deprived, it’s important to make sure participating in sports is balanced with other activities, including getting enough Zzzs.
It should never be a decision of one over the other — sleep or sports. Teens need both. Sleep enhances athletic performance and sports strengthen our bodies and minds. What’s most important is striking a balance between getting enough sleep and being mindful of sports schedules and not overdoing it.
How Much Sleep Do Teens Really Need?
According to multiple sleep scientists, teens need between 8-10 hours of sleep for all the reasons we outlined above. We can, however, summarize them into two parts: intrinsic (our biological shifts that happen in adolescent years) and external (social, intellectual, and environmental changes that occur in our teenage years.
However, The National Sleep Foundation estimates roughly 85 percent of teenagers are sleeping less than 8 ½ hours a night. Why is getting enough sleep a challenge? There are so many factors at play, from our bodies being biologically programmed to stay up late, to extra school and social stress, to evening sports practice that makes it hard to fall asleep at night.
Digital technology is an issue, too. A majority of teenagers use some sort of tablet, phone, or electronic device right before bedtime, and we all know that exposure to light is a large reason our population is becoming more and more sleep deprived.
Risks of Not Getting Enough Sleep
Teens who are sleep deprived face a wide range of health risks, ranging from physical to intellectual, social to emotional.
Adolescents who don’t get their 8-10 hours are at risk for chronic conditions like diabetes, obesity, and poor mental health. They are also at risk for cognitive issues, like difficulty focusing and learning, experiencing poor judgment, and having an inability to problem solve. On the behavioral issue front, teens who are sleep deprived are more likely to adopt drug and alcohol use, and may even be prone to violence and social withdrawal. Negative moods, depression rates, and suicide risk are a dangerous connection to sleep deprivation as well. Lastly, it’s well known that grades suffer and absence increases in school for teens who do not get their 8-10 hours.
Parents: How To Ensure Your Kids Sleep Enough
All of these risks might sound daunting, but the truth of the matter is there are many useful tips to ensure your child gets enough sleep.
The first thing is to recognize that this shift in their circadian rhythm is occurring, so do not reprimand your son or daughter for wanting to stay up later. Just make sure they are going to bed at a time that still allows for around nine hours of sleep before having to get up for school. Perhaps this means a 10 pm bedtime and a 7 am wake-time.
While it might be hard to get them to fall asleep that “early,” certain things can help. For starters, help them establish a relaxing bedtime routine, which includes removing all electronics from the room a few hours before lights-out. Some people even say having your teen wear sunglasses prior to bed helps them avoid the artificial light in the home. You could always dim the lights, too.
For the hours before bed, keep them out of their physical bed. The bed should be solely for sleeping, so if they are hauled up there, watching TV or playing video games in bed, it will be harder to associate the bed with sleep. Have them play games or read on the living room couch instead.
Make sure they have a comfortable bed set up as well. A good quality mattress, pillow, and sheets will go a long way. If they’re comfy and their body is well supported, they will sleep more deeply and wake up without any unnecessary aches and pains.
Perhaps the best thing you can do is talk to your child about the importance of sleep. They might not realize how important it is so they can feel happy, energetic, and productive. Explain how 8-10 hours will give them more energy to do the things they love during the day, whether that’s attending class, soccer practice, or dance rehearsal.
Teens: Your Guide to Getting Better Sleep
It might be hard to get enough sleep. It makes sense: Between school stress, a ton of extracurricular activities, and a body that naturally wants to stay up later, it’s hard to fall asleep and get at least eight hours of good rest. Try following these steps and tips to see if you can fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
- Have a relaxing bedtime routine. Bodies love routines. If you can start doing roughly the same thing every night before bed, your body will know it’s time to shut down and get some shut-eye. A relaxing routine could be reading on the couch with a cup of tea, journaling at the kitchen table, or talking with a sibling or parent on the back porch before heading into bed.
- Exercise — but avoid it at night. Physical activity is fantastic for your body and will help you sleep better, too. The only caveat is exercise too late in the day will make it harder to fall asleep, so avoid evening practices and games if you can.
- Put your phone away! Exposure to light on our screens is a huge reason it might be hard to turn your body off at night. It might be hard but put your phone, tablet, or TV away a few hours before it’s time for bed.
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time. Similar to establishing a routine, if you go to bed around the same time at night, and wake up at the same time each morning, our body will get used to this pattern. Yes — this even means weekends too!
- Avoid napping. Naps during the day might make it hard to fall asleep at night. (And no, the 8-10 hours you need can’t include a 1-hour cat nap during the day.) If you get enough sleep at night, you should have enough energy in the day and won’t even need to nap.
- Avoid afternoon caffeine. If you’re a coffee or tea drinker, try to stop drinking caffeine around lunchtime. This could make you feel wired and wide-eyed late at night.
- Don’t stretch yourself too thin. This time of your life is exciting. You’re likely making new friendships, discovering new activities and hobbies, and trying to sign up for the next best thing to get involved with. While staying busy is great, don’t overschedule yourself and try to fit in too much in one day. You might enjoy this lifestyle, but it also adds stress and leads to not getting enough sleep.
Whether you’re a teenager yourself, or a parent to adolescents, it’s so important to recognize how sleep affects every other aspect of our lives. As a parent, you can help your child stick to healthy habits about sleep, while educating him or her on the importance of getting enough sleep. And as a teen, if you can commit to getting your 8-10 hours, you might surprise yourself with how much happier, productive, and energetic you feel. Either way, we promise you that only good things will come from prioritizing healthy sleep habits.
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