The science of sleep has made remarkable progress in discovering how and why we sleep. Every living thing on this planet has rest periods, even jellyfish! A healthy sleep cycle is essential for teen mental fitness. Lack of sleep in teenagers has been linked to poor grades and athletic performance, and higher rates of depression and suicide, car accidents, and drug and alcohol abuse. Those are all pretty important reasons to ensure your teen is getting adequate sleep!
How many hours a teen needs to sleep each night is an interesting study in human brain functioning. “Everything in moderation” is the key. Circadian rhythms are our internal body clock. Fluctuating hormones due to internal and external cues regulate those rhythms. Humans are diurnal, we need sunlight and activity during the day with darkness and rest at night for the highest quantity and quality of life. Age determines the optimal amount of sleep. Teenagers fall in a unique category of circadian rhythms, and understanding them can lead to the best possible sleep for their healthiest brains.
In studies with teens, optimal sleep time differs when measuring performance at school versus mental health. The curve for school performance is low when getting less than seven hours a night, peaks at only seven, drops a little at 8-9.5 hours, and then takes a dive past 10 hours. Interestingly, getting no more than seven hours a night is linked to highest grades at school, but at a trade-off of more rates of depression and anxiety. Researchers theorize that the higher performance for less hours is a short-term effect since mental health problems interfere with school achievement in the long-term. Getting better grades sophomore year in high school with only seven hours and then having a mental breakdown senior year is not worth it. For peak mental fitness, teenagers need 8-9.5 hours of sleep on average, every night.
Okay, so parents know their young adult needs sleep for mental fitness. Great. Now you know how much sleep they need. Even better. But how to help them get the sleep they need when they won’t go to sleep? Or they won’t stay asleep? Or they sleep, but still complain of being tired during the day? Here is a list of ways you, the guardian of your little loved one’s brain, can ensure the best possible rest. I have linked to numerous articles with science-backed data. Please check them out for more details.
- Honor their natural body clock: Teenagers are notorious for staying up late. In fact, this is normal. Puberty changes the circadian rhythms in our children to stay up later at night and sleep later in the morning. First, adjust their daily schedule to accommodate this normal pattern. If you homeschool, you have the ability to allow this easily. If your child goes to school with an earlier start time, see if that’s negotiable. Get involved in your town to change early high school start times. Students significantly perform better at school and have less mental health issues in districts with later start times. Mention there are studies that show significantly fewer car accidents involving teenagers who can sleep in. At the very least, forbid any activities before school.
- Keep ’em comfy: Let’s say you have optimized their time for sleep, but they have trouble falling or staying asleep. First, do some simple and effective lifestyle and home changes to maximize easing into (and staying) asleep: Do your best to eliminate bugs and rodents in the house. Cool temperature, but not cold at night. Use layers of blankets instead of one thick comforter to leave room for adjusting during the night. Invest in quality linens that will last for many years and are smooth against the skin. How old is their mattress? Replace any mattress that is over 10 years old or is noticeable lumpy. Pillows should be replaced more regularly. Have them try out different kinds of pillows to find their perfect “pillow love” match. [Insert contented sigh here.]
- Encourage a regular schedule: allowing for a little catch-up on sleep over the weekend will not hurt. However, sleeping until noon on Saturday will only mess up their internal clock. Napping in the afternoon is normal human behavior (think “siesta”) and follows natural rhythms. 20-40 minutes is a fine nap, especially for the athletes in your teen family that may need to rest their bodies even more than average. An hour and a half nap (or more) indicates that they are not getting adequate sleep at night. Remember, there are sleep cycles in our night rest that must be followed in the correct order or they don’t happen. Your teen can’t “make up” those last couple hours of sleep in a nap during the day—they won’t even make it past the first couple cycles.
- Limit Their Activities: But college!, you say. How about avoiding a mental breakdown when they start college?, I say. Colleges are looking for quality over quantity when it comes to extra-curricular activities. If they are doing schoolwork right up to their bedtime (or later), maybe they need fewer activities after school so they can start and finish their work sooner. If financially possible, only let your teen work outside the home on weekends and during the summer. Keep school days for school and their one or two passions. Teens get excited about many things and seem to have endless energy. It’s the parent’s job to put their mental health first.
- Sleep Time Is Quiet Time: Does their bed squeak? Tighten screws, replace it, or just put their mattress and box spring on the floor (we did this for both our kids because they would startle from the sound of their bed frames). If they are sensitive to noise, check out the variety of earplugs out there to find one that is comfortable, or use a white noise machine. Teach respect for sleepers in your household. Everyone should use headphones if they are up later than someone else. Keep conversations quiet or in a far-away space away from bedrooms. One of my nephews had a roommate in college that refused to wear headphones while playing shoot-em-up video games late into the night. It was a horrible thing to listen to while trying to get peaceful rest. Don’t let your teen be that person.
- No Light at Night: Our modern world with endless daylight from street lamps right outside our windows, light pollution from nearby cities, screens we stare at, and even the “on” buttons on our gadgets, all contribute to completely screwing up our natural circadian rhythms. Artificial light blocks the hormone melatonin which tells our body it’s time to rest (candle and firelight does not cause this effect). It is a huge problem in modern society and it is getting worse. But your home, especially bedrooms, can be a haven for this intense growing and changing time in your child’s life. Get light-blocking curtains over windows, unplug anything that has a blinking or tiny light, and have them try out different eye masks to really block the unnatural shine. Screens are the worst in terms of unnatural light that disturbs the human body clock. Newer devices have a “night mode,” which dims the light, cutting out some of the most harmful blue light, which is better, but it’s still a screen so not healthy. Auto shut-off times for apps can be a helpful reminder. Keep all screens out of their bedroom at night: TV, laptops, tablets, and, yes, their phone too. If they have a desktop, make sure it’s unplugged at bedtime (not just “off” which can still display a small “ready-light”). Get your teen an actual alarm clock. My son bought himself a small digital bedside clock so he never had to check his phone at night for the time (with red light display). Most experts recommend turning off all screens one hour before bedtime.
- Turn Off the Wi-Fi at Night: Yes. Yes. Yes. (See “role model” section, see “stress” section, see “light” section, see “quiet” section, etc.) This is probably the hardest (for you) but single-most important way you can ensure your teen gets adequate sleep at night. If the wi-fi is off, then they can’t do most of the activities that keep them up late. My own children were in college when I started turning off wi-fi at night. While home on breaks they complained for a few nights and then adjusted. They realized having the wi-fi off meant they didn’t have to use will power to stop checking their social media or doing one last homework assignment they had put off. Instead, they planned ahead to get homework done before the wi-fi deadline, and enjoyed a stress-free night of sleep. It’s like taking a vacation in the woods with no cell service. They could finally relax. Which brings me to the next section:
- Lower Stress: Stress can keep teens awake by over-stimulating the hormones that regulate sleep/wake cycles. Everyday life has normal stressors, but too much can over-stimulate. How to lower stress for your teen? Encourage moderate exercise and a good diet, 120 minutes of nature a week, balance of friends vs. alone time (depends on introvert/extrovert personality of your teen), daily meditation, less social media, ease up on the school and sports-related performance pressure, prioritize extra-curricular activities, and, while pets can lower stress overall, letting them sleep with your teen is not always best. Limit exposure to fear-based, negative news which can increase mental health issues. Keep violent or intense entertainment to a minimum, especially in the evening. Finally, spend more time as a family. If your teen has suffered from a traumatic event (or even heard about one) this can cause PTSD-related sleep issues. If you know this is the cause of their lack of sleep, seek professional help.
- Drugs and Medication: If your teen is taking medication, check the side effects. If poor sleep is one of them, talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of proper sleep with their medical issue. Illegal drugs and alcohol mess up sleep patterns, even ones that “chill” you out. Nicotine is an example of that. Talk to your teen about that. Being addicted to caffeine is a terrible habit to start on a developing brain. Don’t allow this in your house (can’t help things outside) by refusing to buy any soft drinks with caffeine in them. Limit black and green tea and coffee in the afternoon, and none after 5 pm. (Herbal or tisane tea is fine, but know that Yerba Mata is high in caffeine.) There are herbs and natural remedies to help relax from melatonin pills to passionflower extract to CDB massage creams. Talk to your doctor before trying anything with your teen, and be sure to find a reputable company or local herbalist to ensure what is in the bottle matches the label.
- Other Medical Issues: Daytime sleepiness is not normal. Sometimes teens (and adults) don’t even know they aren’t sleeping well. Yawning and nodding off frequently during the day are big signs that something isn’t right, and raises the risk of accidents. Having a sleep study done can shed some light (ha) onto an issue. Pain, allergies, sleep apnea, restless legs, and urinary track problems are all common reasons people wake up frequently or can’t stay asleep. Then there are more serious issues like narcolepsy or an endocrine disorder that disrupts sleep cycles. If you have done all you can to help your teen with sleep and they still have problems, go to the doctor.
- Gentle Bedtime Routine: The average person takes between 5 and 20 minutes to fall asleep, but it can be smooth and peaceful, or full of shakes and startles before the body settles down. Having time to relax is key. Plan the day to get work finished, turn off all screens and devices, and then have a slowed-down getting ready for bed time. Routine helps signal your teen’s body it’s time to lower stimulating hormones and increase melatonin. My daughter likes to make herself a cup of herbal tea before bed. My son does a PM Yoga routine. My husband enjoys evening baking (which makes the house smell wonderful for everyone). I take a warm shower and let the day go down the drain. Eating should not be part of bedtime rituals since that can cause sleep discomfort. If gentle rituals don’t help to ease slumber, consider downloading guided meditations for your teen to listen to as they fall asleep, or gentle music, or white noise. There is also a podcast called Nothing Much Happens, which has bedtime stories for grown-ups. They are suitable for teens as well.
- Be a Role Model for Sleep: They are watching you. Even if they say or act like they know more than you now (teens are suddenly full of wisdom…), they are still learning from your behavior. If you are wondering if I practice what I preach: yes. I suffered from insomnia for too many years due to an endocrine disorder and I had to do everything I listed above just to get maybe three hours of sleep at night. I went mentally insane from lack of sleep, and my kids watched me suffer. Now that I’m healed from that illness, I am grateful that I learned how to get the best possible sleep for a human, and pass on the daily miracle of a good night’s rest to my young adult children. They also see that it’s fun to enjoy late-night special events when they are rare, and then get right back to the routine.
In addition to having raised two teenagers, I have had many teens as students over the years. I am saddened when I hear them boast how they binged-watched a season of a violent show over the internet until 2 am, then couldn’t sleep so took a shot of cold medicine. To me, this is similar to someone doing a line of cocaine at a party, coming home at 2 am, wondering why they can’t rest and downing a bottle of whiskey to knock themselves out. More extreme, of course, but the same pattern of unhealthy behavior towards sleep, which can lead to mental health problems. As long as your child is sleeping under your roof, you have the authority to control evening activities. Help your teenager be mentally fit!
And send them to bed with sweet dreams.