Prioritize Teen Sleep: Springing Forward and the “Race to Nowhere”

Are you tired this morning? Did you order the Venti instead of the Grande, like me? Pushing the clock ahead one hour at this time each year can seem like a cruel joke. Those 60 minutes of “lost time” have a profound effect, physically and mentally, at the beginning of this week. And although I love to see the sun in the early morning hours, springing forward is one time of the year where the value and necessity of sleep becomes most apparent.

My thoughts on sleep were amplified not only by the clock springing forward, but by watching the “Race to Nowhere” (see note below). This film is a documentary reflecting consequences of our current educational system. I was glued to the screen as I was allowed to peer into the window of the lives of successful teens and their families. A large portion of the film focused on the consequences of teen stress, including the decline of their physical and mental health. Much of the movie commented on the sleep patterns of the teens, suggesting a significant part of respecting the “whole child” was to prioritize physical and mental rest.

I know, as parents, we all agree on the importance of sleep for our kids. I talk about sleep with my patient families at every well-child check. The duration and quality of sleep directly impacts a child’s physical and mental health, and is a necessary part of the body’s restoration and repair.

What I have noticed in my experience with families, however, is that during the first 2 years of life, parents have lots of questions about their child's sleep. By the middle-school and high-school years, however, rarely do parents raise sleep concerns. Parents are fully aware that sleep is still very important to our teens. But somehow it begins to become more of a luxury, and less of a necessity.

I see the physical consequences of poor sleep in my pre-teen and teen patients. Teens with chronic sleep loss show up to my clinic with symptoms of inattention and poor school performance, behavior changes, chronic head and stomach aches, depression, weight gain or loss, and frequent infections. Unfortunately, convincing parents their child’s symptoms may stem from chronic sleep deprivation (rather than a diagnosis of ADHD, anemia, or gluten-sensitivity, for example) is becoming increasingly difficult.

Getting every teen the recommended 9.25 hours of sleep per night may be unrealistic for some families. Homework, outside activities, and family time fill up our teen’s evening hours quickly. In addition, a teenager’s natural body rhythms often don’t allow restful sleep to begin before 9 pm.

But, prioritizing healthy sleep habits in our teens is foundational in the life-long health of our kids. If we, as parents, are truly unable to control the number of hours our teens sleep; we must create sleeping environments and expectations in order to optimize the sleep our kids do get.

Here are some sleeping tips to consider:

  • Prioritize sleep for your whole family. If parents are not modeling the priority of sleep for themselves, how can we expect our teens to see its value?
  • Keep electronics out of your teen’s bedroom during sleep time. Yes, even the cell phone. Studies have suggested that exposure to back-lit screens (TVs, computers, handheld gaming units, smartphones, etc.) negatively effect the body’s natural sleep rhythms. So to facilitate better sleep, consider putting all things with a “ON” button in a place outside your teen’s bedroom one-hour prior to light’s out. Suggest to your teen that all assignments not requiring a computer to complete, be left as final tasks. And, buy your teen and “old-fashioned” alarm clock so the need for their phone is truly eliminated.
  • In my opinion, there is no reason to ever have a TV in a child’s bedroom. Please keep it out.
  • Enforce a consistent time for lights out and for wakeup call... even on the weekends. The more consistent your teen’s sleep rhythms are maintained, the better sleep they will gain. Outside of rare occasions, homework and electronic time is rarely fruitful after a certain time. Continue to encourage “lights out “ time for your teen, even if they have to get up a few minutes earlier the following day to complete work. Most kids will be more efficient and accurate when rested.
  • Create a consistent time of “winding down” for your family as they prepare their bodies for sleep. Just as the nighttime routine is critical for toddlers to drift into dreamland, so it is for our teens. Think about a consistent, calming sequence of events your teen can use to enter her bed ready for sleep.
  • Encourage your teen to sleep in a sanctum of cool, dark silence. Have all family members be respectful of this time, and keep noise to a house-hold minimum. Provide eye shades and ear plugs as needed.
  • Use naps to “catch up” sleep, but sparingly. Do not allow your teen to nap closer than 2 hours prior to regular bedtime.
  • Get daily exercise, but not right before sleep time.
  • If your teen is beginning to experience the mental and physical consequences of sleep deprivation, have a frank discussion with your teen about being over-scheduled. Eliminating a “non-essential” activity (whether stopping an elite sports team, adjusting an AP-heavy class load, or unplugging the X-box®) may be necessarily until symptoms resolve.

Hopefully, with some consistent sleep behaviors, the sleep of the whole family can be restful and restorative.

For more information:

Tips for your teen to read, including a relaxation exercise from kidshealth.org.

Teen sleep from the Mayo Clinic.

“Race to Nowhere” will be available on DVD in the future. I highly recommend this film as viewing for all parents of middle and high school students. Until that time, see if a screening of the film is available close to your home. Check the documentary’s website for details.