Early school start? How to ensure teens get the sleep they need

For some teens dozing in class, there may be more to blame than inattentiveness or a dull lecture. Biology may be at play.

In fact, very few teens get eight to 10 hours of sleep daily, as recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. More than two-thirds, or about 68 percent, of high school students sleep seven hours or less on school nights. That’s according to research highlighted in a recent policy statement by AASM published last month in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine advocating middle and high schools delay start times until 8:30 or later.

Though some schools have made the shift, most start earlier — commonly in the 7 o’clock hour — for reasons ranging from school busing schedules to ensuring after-school activities, including sports, can start earlier.

[See: 10 Concerns Parents Have About Their Kids’ Health.]

Growing into a Later Bedtime

But sleep and pediatric experts say those early mornings run counter to developmental changes in older kids and adolescents, like delayed secretion of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, that make it more natural for them to be later to bed and later to rise.

“Because of puberty-related biological changes in circadian rhythms, the vast majority of adolescents are programmed to fall asleep around 11 p.m.,” says Dr. Judith Owens, lead author of an American Academy of Pediatrics 2014 policy statement that also calls for school start times no earlier than 8:30 a.m. for adolescents. “They need eight to 10 hours of sleep, so a wake time around 8 a.m. is optimal. Waking at 5 to 6 a.m. for a 7 a.m. school start time for them is like waking up every day at 3 to 4 a.m. for us and being expected to function,” says Owens, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital.

REM sleep (characterized by rapid eye movement under closed eyelids during periods of intense dreaming) that’s critical for memory consolidation and learning of new tasks is concentrated in the latter third of the night; “so waking too early selectively curtails REM,” she says.

It’s not just that teens are dozing in class, either. Many are drowsy behind the wheel. “Increased motor vehicle accident risk is particularly concerning because young, novice drivers have a higher crash risk when sleep-deprived, and motor vehicle crashes account for 35 percent of all deaths and 73 percent of deaths from unintentional injury in teenagers,” the AASM notes. Research suggests moving to later school times decreases adolescent auto accidents.

“If I told you that there was something that could be done for middle and high schools that would increase attendance, increase graduation rates, improve academic performance and improve standardized test scores; reduce motor vehicle accidents — which, by the way, is the No. 1 killer of adolescents; improve mental health by reducing depressive symptoms and reducing suicidal ideation, reduce risky behaviors like getting involved in sex, drug use, alcohol use, smoking … and improve athletic performance, as well as academic performance, do you think you’d want to do that?” asks Dr. Nathaniel Watson, AASM immediate past president and co-director of the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

[See: 8 Steps to Fall Asleep Fast.]

What Parents Can Do — Even If School Starts Early

But while some legislation has been introduced, including in California, to start the school day later, change is slow in catching up with the science of optimal adolescent sleep hours. Yet later school times alone, experts say, are not a panacea for the myriad of problems that can be caused or exacerbated by not getting enough shut-eye. So in addition to pushing for later school times, clinicians say it’s critical that parents and teens work together to adopt best sleep practices, whether their school is the exception that starts later — or not.

Here’s what experts advise to help adolescents get precious zzz’s:

Talk it over. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has deemed insufficient sleep a public health epidemic. Along with drowsy kids, one-third of adults aren’t getting enough sleep — or at least seven hours per day — according the CDC. That can contribute to weight gain, higher blood pressure and depression in young and old, and raise risk for everything from diabetes to heart disease and stroke long term.

So along with discussing the value of proper diet and exercise, don’t neglect the third pillar of health: optimal sleep. “I think first and foremost, parents need to have a conversation with their kids about the importance of sleep,” says Dr. Katherine Williamson, a pediatrician based in Mission Viejo, California and an AAP spokesperson. Talk about the benefits of sleep, and the dangers of inadequate rest.

Make a family media plan. The hyper-connectivity of today’s teens can torpedo bedtimes. Many kids — starting even before middle school — have their own smartphones and keep the devices with them 24/7. “They’re going to sleep with their smartphones — which decreases the quality of their sleep [and] delays their falling asleep,” Williamson says.

The peer pressure for teens to stay connected at all hours is huge, adds Dr. Sanjeev Kothare, director of pediatric sleep medicine at the NYU Langone Comprehensive Epilepsy Center–Sleep Center in New York City and professor of neurology and pediatrics at NYU. “All of these kids are on social media — texting and typing all the time in the night. Then they have to wind down,” he says; and many must get ready for an early school start. That’s all the more reason, experts say, parents need to step in and set boundaries, when adolescents can’t or won’t for themselves.

Clinicians recommend removing all electronics from kids’ bedrooms, and having them stow phones in another central location — like the kitchen — before going to bed. Rather than relying on smartphone alarms, get traditional alarm clocks for your teen and yourself, Williamson recommends. The AAP provides tools to create a family media plan, including outlining when screens shouldn’t be used, such as during mealtime and at bedtime. “Turn off screens (the light from which suppresses melatonin release and delays sleep onset) at least 30 minutes before bed,” Owens says. And parents should set an example for children in abiding by agreed-upon family technology boundaries — like no screens at mealtime or bedtime — themselves.

Forget about “makeup sleep.” A short catnap is one thing — but the two-hour deep doze in the afternoon is not going to help adolescents recover from slighted sleep at night. Better to focus on being productive during that time, finishing homework and preparing for an electronics-free run-up to an earlier bedtime that allows a teen to get at least eight hours sleep, Kothare says. Taking a long nap in the afternoon can push bedtime back even later, making an adolescent even more tired during the day. On the weekends, teen bedtimes and wake times shouldn’t be more than an hour or two later on the weekends, Owens recommends.

Experts also advise adolescents not to overdo it with after-school activities (limiting, in particular, those that last later into the evening) abstain from caffeine in the late afternoon and evening, and to exercise daily — though not within an hour of their bedtime — along with following other sleep rules, like keeping the bedroom comfortable, cool and dark.

[See: Trouble Sleeping? Ask Yourself Why.]

All things considered, it’s about trading in sheer quantity of hours when your eyes are open for quality of wakefulness, Watson notes — and that requires a societal shift involving young and old. “We live in a time where the zeitgeist is, ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead,’ or sleep is non-compulsory, sleep is for lazy people,” he says — while to the contrary, science shows there’s no substitute for adequate rest. “You can’t hack your sleep.”

More from U.S. News

Is it Healthy to Sleep With Your Pets?

8 Ways to Relax — Now

Can These New Devices Really Help You Sleep, Drug-Free?

Early School Start? How to Ensure Teens Get the Sleep They Need originally appeared on usnews.com

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up