Night owl no more

By Malia Jacobson

When it comes raising a teen, Raina Johnson of Auburn calls herself “blessed”. Her 17-year-old son is thoughtful and responsible, conscientious about school and kind to his two younger brothers. Throughout elementary school, his sleep schedule was equally dreamy: In bed by 7:30 p.m. and up around 6, rested and ready for the day.

In middle school, though, Raina noticed a change. By age 12 or so, Aidan started taking longer to nod off at night and had more trouble waking up for school in the morning. By high school, he had to set two morning alarms to make sure he didn’t miss the bus, and could barely stay awake after dinner to complete homework.

Raina’s family is far from alone. Today’s teens are chronically tired, says Maida Chen, MD director of Seattle Children’s Sleep Disorders Program. Though teens need 9 to 10 hours of sleep, most skimp:  Per the National Sleep Foundation, just 15 per cent of teens get enough sleep at night.

The result: Moodiness, distracted driving and difficulties waking up for school, a struggle that’s especially painful as teens readjust to an early alarm clock during the first weeks of the new school year after a summer of sleeping late.

Teens who regularly get less sleep than they need suffer in school and life, says Chen. “Sleep deprivation impairs their academic ability, their cognitive performance, their ability to interact with peers, their emotional maturity and their already-impaired adolescent judgement.”

In other words, a chronic sleep shortage can make the topsy-turvy teen years even more turbulent and a teenager even more teenager-ish.

Body clock

Teens who stay up late and morph into zombies come morning aren’t being defiant, and they aren’t unusual, says Chen. Their behaviour is biologically driven, and seen across a number of animal species around puberty, typically between ages 11 and 14, circadian rhythms shift to favour later bedtimes than those in early childhood.

This means the easy-to-bed kid who used to fall asleep by 8 will now stay up until 11 and struggle mightily to wake in the morning. “Often a teen won’t go to sleep before 11 no matter what you do,” says Chen.

So a teen who needs to wake by 6 will start each day a couple of hours short on sleep, struggle through the day, and then repeat the cycle the next day. It’s not hard to see why the snooze bar might become a habit, says Darius Zoroufy, MD, somnologist at Swedish Medical Center.

The late-to-bed, later-to-rise behavior also has a social basis, notes Zoroufy. As social activity moves online for teens, many have near round-the-clock access to friends via their smartphones and other devices. A budding, buzzing social life is normal and healthy, he says, but it can also rob teens of needed sleep. “When the night hours become a time to connect to peers online, sleep isn’t as much of a priority.”

Saved by the bell

Some school start times have already shifted to better match teens’ biological rhythms. In 2015, Seattle Public Schools became one of the nation’s largest districts to move school bells to 8:30 a.m. A new proposal will push school start times to 9 a.m. for the 2017-2018 school year[ii].

This move, recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and championed by Chen and others, reflects increased understanding of teens’ unique biological patterns that favour sleeping later in the morning.

“In the past, expectations of when a teen should be up and functional in the morning just didn’t align with their biology,” says Chen. Later school times are backed by science and good sense, she says. When teens are allowed to wake at 7 a.m. or later and still make it to school in time, they have a better chance of nabbing 8 to 9 hours of sleep at night and arriving at school rested.

Healthy habits

Of course, even a later alarm clock might not help teens who routinely struggle to wake for school. For some, a sleep schedule that’s inconsistent from day to day leads to a sort of perma-jet-lag. Teens who spend the week sleepy often “binge sleep” on weekends, sleeping until lunchtime or later, says Chen. This makes it difficult for them to fall asleep on those nights and harder to wake the next morning, perpetuating the cycle.

Helping teens wake earlier and more easily, or adjust to a back-to-school sleep routine, means focusing on their wake time, which sets their body clock for the rest of the day, says Chen. “This means making sure teens consistently get up at the same time within an hour, each day, including weekends.”

Caregivers shouldn’t be afraid to set limits for teens, says clinical psychologist Michael Breus, Ph.D. an expert in sleep disorders who is also a parent of two teens. Though teens may chafe at “bedtimes,” they still need and respond well to routines, especially ones they help create. Asking teens to think about how much sleep they need to feel rested is a good start. A teen with a 6 a.m. wake-up call needs to be in bed by 10 to get 8 hours (a reasonable goal, though still short of the 9-10 most teens need), so work backwards: Homework needs to be finished by (say) 8, and personal electronics need to switch off by 9.

That’s right: Electronics should have a bedtime too, says Zoroufy. The light and stimulation pouring from your teen’s smartphone keep him awake by curbing the production of sleep-inducing neurotransmitter melatonin. Set a “power-down-hour,” or a time to retire all gadgets to a charging station outside the bedroom. This means surrendering your device, too, modeling healthy habits is key here, he says. And bonus! your own sleep habits will benefit, too.

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.