Sleep Education
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Teens & School Start Times

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Teen Sleep

Studies show that teens require an average of about 9.25 hours of sleep to be alert the next day. Yet most teens get less than 7 hours of sleep each night. Most teens are sleep deprived and sleepy.

There is a biological clock in the brain that is reset to a later time during puberty. This biological clock controls when you feel sleepy and alert. It also controls your body temperature. It even controls when your body releases melatonin and many other important hormones.

All of these body activities are reset to occur at later times during puberty and through the teen years. These changes happen around the age of 11 or 12 years. The specific age varies from one teen to another.

The result of this biological change is that teens may not feel sleepy until about 10 p.m. or much later. They are most alert in the evening. This also means that they are still sleepy and finishing their sleep at a later time in the morning.

To get 9.25 hours of sleep, a teen would need to sleep uninterrupted from 10 p.m. until 7:15 a.m. Yet many school start times begin as early as 7 a.m. This requires students to awaken at 6 a.m. or earlier to get to school on time. Sleeping only from 10 p.m. or later to 6 a.m. explains why most teens are sleepy during the day.

Falling asleep later may cause problems. Parents may think their teen has bad behavior or has insomnia. Falling asleep later and having to get up early for school leads to chronic sleep deprivation, which can cause these problems:

  • Difficulty staying awake and paying attention in class
  • Difficulty learning, thinking, making decisions, using good judgment or solving problems
  • Moodiness and irritability
  • Confusion with other disorders such as depression and attention deficit disorder
  • Problems with memory, growth, the immune system, and general health
  • Delayed reaction times (affects sports and other activities)
  • Sluggishness and decreased motivation
  • Using bad behavior to counteract daytime sleepiness.
    Examples include eating sugary, fast-energy foods; drinking too much caffeine and smoking.
  • Using bad behaviors to fall asleep earlier
    Examples include drinking alcohol or taking pills.
  • Sleepiness and a lack of alertness while driving
    Sleep deprivation can cause as much impairment as drunk driving. More than 50,000 crashes are caused each year by drowsy drivers under the age of 25 years old.

Later School Start Times

Some schools in Minnesota and in other states have moved their start times later. With the same bedtime, students were able to get more sleep. These were some of the positive results for students:

  • Attended school more often
  • Arrived on time more often
  • Ate breakfast more regularly
  • Completed more homework during school times (more alert and efficient)
  • Appeared more alert in class (reported by teachers)
  • Visited the school nurse fewer times
  • Had fewer behavioral problems
  • Earned better grades (Massachusetts study)
  • Involved in fewer car crashes (Kentucky study)

There were also some problems reported as a result of later school start times:

  • Less time for sports, arts, and other after school activities
  • Getting home from school later
  • Conflicts with jobs
  • Conflicts with extracurricular activities
  • Conflicts with bus schedules and with family transportation arrangements
  • Conflicts with parents’ and teachers’ schedules

Tips to Help Teens Get the Sleep They Need

  • Try to get close to 9 hours sleep. Get enough sleep so that you wake up refreshed and alert for the day.
  • Try to wind down and relax before bedtime. Avoid intense studying, arguing and exercising. Stop playing video or computer games and enjoy some quiet time before bed.
  • Avoid bright lights in the evening. Darkness lets your body know it’s time to sleep.
  • Try to get bright light in the morning. This helps reset your clock for the next night. Turn on bright lights and open your blinds when you get up. Getting exercise in the morning also may help.
  • Try to catch up on any lost sleep when you can. Naps can be helpful to catch up with lost sleep, but don’t nap in the evening. Sleeping later on week-ends can help catch up with lost sleep. But do not sleep later than 2 to 3 hours past your normal weekday wake up time, especially on Sunday mornings.
  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine in the afternoon and evening. Caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol can disturb your sleep. Do not drink alcohol. The combined effects of sleepiness with alcohol are very dangerous.
  • Do not drive if you are sleepy. Driving sleepy can be as dangerous as driving drunk.

    More Information

    Teens and Sleep Loss

    Sleep Tips for Students

    Your Teen’s Bed Time

    Teen Bed Times: Parent Tips

    Signs Your Teen Needs Sleep

    By Sharon L. Schutte-Rodin, MD
    Updated on Dec. 16, 2009

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