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How Much Sleep Does Your Teenager Need?

It’s common for parents to worry about their teenagers getting enough sleep.  Like adults, teenagers’ sleep requirements vary between individuals, depending on how well they function on a certain amount of sleep.  But as a general guideline, most teenagers function well on about nine hours sleep per day, says Dr Sarah Blunden, founder of the Australian Centre for Education in Sleep and Director of the Paediatric Sleep Clinic in South Australia.

Teenagers are well known for their habit of staying up late and wanting to sleep in the next morning.  Neither an act of rebellion, nor a preference, this pattern is mostly a consequence of hormone-induced changes in adolescents’ brains.

Sleep Patterns and Melatonin in Teenagers

The ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin, is responsible for that sleepy feeling when it’s about time for bed.  Regulated by a gland in the brain, more melatonin is released into our bodies when it gets dark.  The amount and timing of melatonin release is influenced by a combination of an individual’s own body clocks and routines.  In adults, for example, melatonin levels might start to rise at around 10:30pm, causing them to feel sleepy and go through a nightly ritual to get them in the right frame of mind for sleep. “Routines are very important cues for both the body and mind,” says Dr Blunden.  But in teenagers, due to a combination of habits, exposure to light and hormonal changes, that important rise in melatonin tends to occur later in the evening, and in some cases, as late as 1:00am.

Sleep patterns are regulated by the brain, explains Blunden.  When puberty hits, there are changes in hormone release, and a period of rapid growth and change in the teenager’s brain and body.  Although teenagers might require more sleep than adults to accommodate all this activity, the delay in melatonin release can cause problems.  Even if teens decide to go to bed at a reasonable hour, they may not fall asleep easily. “Then when their alarm goes off at 7am,” says Blunden, “they’ve had perhaps six or seven hours of sleep, which just isn’t enough.  And the effects of this lack of sleep are cumulative.”

Teenagers, Technology and Sleep

A possible reason for delayed melatonin release is the effect of technology use before bed. Writing about the effects of caffeine and technology on the sleep and daytime functioning of teenagers in the American Academy of Pediatrics Journal, Drs Calamaro, Mason and Ratcliffe suggest that “The brightness of a television or computer screen may interfere with melatonin release, because release occurs only under dark conditions; and in turn, regulation of the sleep-wake cycle may be disturbed.”  Supporting the idea that parents should consider their teens’ use of technology at night is the work of Dr Michael Gradisar, a researcher specialising in child and adolescent sleep problems at Flinders University. Dr Gradisar suggests that the more interactive the technology is, the greater effect it is likely to have on a teenager’s sleep: the hypothesis is that video games, mobile phones or the internet “are more alerting and disrupt the sleep-onset process.”  On the other hand, more “passively received”  technologies like watching television or listening to music have a less stimulating effect

How Much Sleep Do Teenagers Need?

It is the cumulative sleep loss that is potentially most problematic for teenagers.  Dr Blunden explains that insufficient sleep can contribute to problems such as:

•    Poor behaviour – at school, home and work
•    More extreme moodiness– irritability and low tolerance for frustration
•    More conflict in social interactions
•    Difficulty problem-solving
•    Decreased attention span
•    Reduced creativity
•    Less effective memory

The effect of sleep loss on teenagers may be particularly significant during exam times when Blunden suggests that sleep-deprived students are more likely to struggle.  The potential of sleep deprivation to affect memory is based on the knowledge that if adolescents are only getting a few hours of sleep each night, they are cutting short their amount of REM sleep.  REM is the Rapid Eye Movement sleep cycle which may occur several times during sleep and in which dreams are frequent.  Although there is some debate in academic literature about the relationship between sleep stages and learning, a body of research suggests that REM sleep plays an important role because of its contribution to consolidation of memory.

To add to parents’ confusion about how much sleep is really enough, research published in January 2012 may challenge what Dr Blunden and many other sleep specialists maintain: that is, that about nine hours sleep per day is required for teenagers.  Economics researchers from Brigham Young University studied the relationship between sleep and student performance of 1724 children, aged between 10 and 19 - their research indicated that optimal hours of sleep decline with age.  Using student questionnaires and test scores, the researchers found that for optimal results on standardised tests, the amount of sleep needed becomes lower as a child gets older. Their statistical analysis indicated that the “optimal amount of sleep to maximise test score performance” for 16 year olds is between 7.02 and 7.35 hours. ***

Tips for Helping Teenagers Get Enough Sleep

It’s challenging to talk to teenagers about their sleeping habits but it’s a topic worth raising with them if you have concerns.  Simply referring your teenager to some written information on sleep patterns, health and learning may be a good start to formulating a plan for more sleep.

The following tips might help your teens to get the sleep they need:

1.    Talk to your teenager about the benefits of at least nine hours sleep and negotiate a plan with them for getting more sleep.  This plan might include a nightly ritual or routine before your teen goes to sleep – for example half an hour of reading or listening to relaxing music.

2.    Support your teenager to keep the sleep/wake pattern similar on week days and weekends, especially during school term time.  Sleeping in on the weekend is not ‘catching up’ on sleep but may be counterproductive.  “If you sleep in on Saturday morning, your body won’t want to sleep until late on Saturday night.  So you are still behind on sleep on Monday morning.  Your body needs routine,” says Blunden

3.    Remove technology from your teenager’s bedroom so that you can monitor the timing and use of stimulating electronic media at night.

4.    Avoid your teenager being exposed to excessive light of any kind before sleep.  Ask your teenager to stop using interactive technology and screens close to bedtime.

5.    Encourage your teenager not to eat too much before bed.  In some people, sleep can be disrupted by the digestive process following eating a meal close to bedtime.

6.    If your teenager is very tired during the day, a short twenty minute nap can provide three hours of good performance time, advises Blunden.  This can be especially helpful if your child is tired, but needs to go to work, or has to study.  

*** see an important reaction to this paper from paediatric sleep experts published in our later artice: Teenagers Need More than Seven Hours Sleep.