Studies show our biologic clocks change with puberty. Many teens are not ready to fall asleep until at least midnight or later. However, they still need eight or nine hours of sleep per night, and would normally awaken at 8-10 a.m. or later. – UNM School of Medicine
To help us fall asleep at night, our bodies normally produce the hormone melatonin which makes us feel sleepy. In teenagers, there is a change in the melatonin cycle, delaying its production by three hours. This shift in circadian rhythm means that our teenagers are not ready to fall asleep until midnight or later.
One important change that occurs at night time is increased levels of the ‘darkness hormone’ melatonin, which helps us to fall asleep. Most adults start to produce melatonin at about 10pm. When teenagers were studied in a sleep laboratory, researchers discovered that they only began to produce the hormone at 1am. – BBC
Even if teenagers go to bed earlier, they may lie awake for longer before they are able to fall asleep. Because of this, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that middle and high schools start classes at 8:30 am or later.
Despite the research on teenagers and sleep, there is still a lot of controversy over the change in school starting time. Understandably so because it is not an easy change to make. Yet, some schools have already made the shift and even more will be following suit.
The question on many minds is whether the research will translate to real-world benefits. Shifting a school’s starting time is no minor feat and if we’re going to do it, we should be sure that the benefits are a certainty.
What’s the Evidence?
So what is the real-world scenario? According to a University of Minnesota study (2014), later morning school starts really do improve test scores, school grades, and emotional health.
For three years, researchers at the university’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement analyzed data from more than 9,000 students at eight high schools in Minnesota, Colorado and Wyoming. Overall results showed a boost in attendance, test scores and grades in math, English, science and social studies for schools that shifted the school day later into the morning.
Schools also saw a decrease in tardiness, substance abuse and symptoms of depression. Some even had a dramatic drop in teen car crashes. – Star Tribune
Another study by McKeever and Clark (2017) found that delaying high school start times to 8:30 a.m. and later significantly improved graduation and attendance rates.
McKeever and Clark looked at 29 high schools across seven states, comparing attendance and graduation rates before and after the schools implemented a delayed starting time. The average graduation rate jumped from 79% to 88%, and the average attendance rate went from 90% to 94%.
In a Canadian study, published in the Journal of Sleep Research, data from 30,000 students in 362 schools across Canada found a strong association between later school start times and better sleep for teenagers.
One school in Singapore, which has had a later start time in effect for a year, concurs with the research. They reported significant improvements in students’ energy levels in school.
See also: Final Report of the Study Group of Later Start Times (April, 2017)
What Else Can We Do to Help Teenagers Sleep?
Our school starts at 7:20 am for secondary school students. That’s a full hour earlier than the recommended start time from the AAP and it doesn’t look like a change is happening any time soon. Even if we could push forward the time to 8:30 am, I’m not sure what that would mean for us because of our traffic situation.
The time we currently leave for school is relatively traffic free. If we delay leaving the house by 10 minutes, the traffic gets bad enough that we could end up being late for school. So even if we had a later start time, we would still have to leave the house earlier to compensate for the time spent in traffic. That defeats the purpose of a later starting time. Unless school pushing the starting time to 9 or even 9:30 am, it’s not going to make a huge difference.
Inculcating Good Habits for Teenagers Sleep
So we’re back to inculcating good sleep hygiene and according to Child Mind Institute, it is possible. Here are a few things we can do:
1. Help Teenagers Understand the Importance of Sleep
Teenagers aren’t going to prioritise sleep just because we say so. They need to understand how it makes them feel better before they’re going to change their habits. That means we’re going to have to talk about it – a lot.
2. Start Good Habits Early
Don’t wait until you have a teenager to reinforce the importance of sleep. Help your kids develop good habits from an early age by setting limits around bedtimes, study time, and tech time.
3. Consistency is the Key
The sleep schedule should be consistent throughout the week. That includes weekends. Sleeping habits during the weekends should be similar to your teenager’s sleeping hours during the weekdays.
4. No Screens before Bed
Turn off devices at least an hour before bedtime. Usage of digital devices can make it harder to fall asleep for two reasons:
- Blue light emissions send signals our body that it is time to be awake. This stops the production of melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone.
- Digital devices can also be a source of excitement or agitation. An exciting video game or movie can leave us restless, making it harder to wind down for sleep.
5. Limit the Snacks
Snacks with too much sugar or caffeine will also play havoc with sleep. Try to limit them and keep them healthy.
6. Regular Exercise
Regular exercise can lengthen and deepen sleep so make sure you teenager is working out consistently.
Physical activity improves sleep quality and increases sleep duration. Exercise may also bolster sleep in other ways, because it reduces stress and tires you out.
As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, can dramatically improve the quality of your nighttime sleep, especially when done on a regular basis. – Sleep
7. Adequate Daylight Hours
Research links the exposure to daylight during the morning hours (from 8 am to 12 pm) to better sleep at night. In fact, the more sunlight you get during the day, the better your sleep at night so get your teenager outside as much as you can.
8. Bedtime Ritual
People suffering from insomnia are often encouraged to create a bedtime ritual to help their body prepare for sleep. If your teenager finds it hard to fall asleep at night, creating a bedtime ritual could be helpful
9. Sleeping Environment
Make sure your teenager’s bedroom is conducive for sleep:
- comfortable bedding
- moderate room temperature
- block-out curtains or blinds
Encourage your teenager not to use the bed for other activities other than sleep. For instance, no homework in bed.
10. Meditation for Sleep
A number of studies indicate that meditation can help us fall asleep more easily and improve sleep quality.
- A study in older adults found that meditation helps fight insomnia and improve sleep – JAMA, 2015.
- In another study, meditation helped insomniacs get to sleep twice as quickly – Behavior Therapy, 2008.
- In a study from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, meditation reduced the dose or eliminate the use of sleep medication in 91% of the insomniacs. – Am J Med, 1996.
Yogi master, Sushant Pandey offers these top three meditation tips for teenagers (HuffPost):
- Breathing through pranayama techniques to improve concentration and relaxation.
- 10 minutes of candle gazing meditation as a routine before going to bed.
- Using inner visualisation such as a “review of the day” where the teenager visualises the events of the day mentally for five to 10 minutes.
11. Practice Yoga
“Qualitative data collection reveals that adolescents are less anxious and sleep better after doing yoga.” – Sat Bir S. Khalsa, Harvard Medical School.
There is quite a bit of overlap between yoga and meditation so it should come as no surprise that yoga has also been linked to improved sleep.
- Researchers at Harvard Medical School investigated how a daily yoga practice might affect sleep for people with insomnia and found improvements to sleep quality and quantity. – Psychology Today
- In a study published in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, a 45-minute Kundalini Yoga sequence before bedtime that included long, slow breathing and meditation led to statistically significant improvements in sleep efficiency, total sleep time, and how long it took to fall asleep. – HuffPost
Yoga Poses for Sleep:
A Word on Melatonin Supplements
Melatonin supplements have been recommended to help teenagers bring forward their sleep cycle but experts are cautious because there is currently limited study on the safety of melatonin supplements in the under 18 population. The general recommendation has been:
- only for kids older than age 10
- dosage of three mg or less
- short-term use only
- as a last resort
Some of the reasons for being cautious:
- melatonin can affect the way the ovaries and testes function and interfere with their development.
- it can also lead to daytime sleepiness, dizziness and headaches.
- other side effects can include abdominal pain, mild anxiety, irritability, confusion and feelings of depression.