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Why your teen probably needs more sleep

The American Academy of Pediatrics last month strongly urged later start times for middle and high schools in a new policy statement. But until school starts later, these tips will help your teen get the right amount of sleep.

This never happens. A well-rested teen sits before me and shares the happy news: she is now sleeping at least 8, sometimes 9 hours a night. We are in a session; I am her therapist; and I am nodding enthusiastically.

She came to me some months before with depression and anxiety. I blanched when I discovered she was averaging around 6 hours of sleep a night. Before trying anything else, I worked with her to get more sleep by going to bed earlier.

It worked! I've helped her depression! I've helped her anxiety!

I've also doomed this poor girl to going to bed at 9:30 at night.

She's 17 years old.

No teenager wants to go to bed at 9:30. A natural shift in the sleep-wake cycle occurs in puberty such that the average teen has difficulty falling asleep before 11 pm and is wired to wake up around 8 am.

But the school day often starts before 8, which necessitates wake-up times around 6 or 6:30. This makes it very difficult to get the recommended 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep that a teen needs, leading to a nation of chronically sleep-deprived youth.

Most of the adolescent patients I see are juggling the demands of school, after school sports and activities, homework, friends, and the siren's call of electronics and social networking. They are sleepy. And sleepy teens are vulnerable teens.

If only their schools started later…

Indeed, last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly urged later start times for middle and high schools in a new policy statement. That statement deemed insufficient sleep an "epidemic" among American teens and cited abundant research showing that sleep deprivation among youth is associated with decreased academic performance, poorer mental health, and increased drowsy driving accidents.

Their proposed solution? Middle and high schools should start no earlier than 8:30 am. This would mean a major change in the American education system, where currently 43 percent of public high schools start earlier than 8 am and only 15 percent start at 8:30 or later.

But numerous studies have shown that later school start times not only increase adolescents' sleep, but also reduce all the afore-mentioned ills of sleep deprivation.

But busing times, after school sports, parents' schedules? Turn out a district-wide shift to later start times may not to be all that disruptive. For example, one study completed by the University of Minnesota found that, one year after a district shifted their high schools to start later in the morning, 92 percent of parents preferred the later start time.

Waiting in the dark for the morning school bus is akin to torture. Until your child's district comes around, do the best that you can to help your teen get adequate sleep. Remember, you are aiming for 8.5-9.5 hours a night.

  1. Don't provide caffeinated drinks and beg your adolescents to avoid them after noon.

  2. Nag your teens to pick out their clothes, pack book bags, and shower at night, so they can wake up later in the mornings.

  3. Institute a family-wide curfew for electronics. (Ideally, the ban should start about one hour before bedtime). (Yes, parents, this means you, too.) (Yes, really).

  4. Too much homework keeping your kid from getting to bed? Make a noisy fuss about it in public settings whenever possible.

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