DEAR DOCTOR K:
My teenage daughter stays up late, then has a hard time waking up for school. I don’t think she’s getting enough sleep. What can I do to help her fall asleep at a reasonable time?
Not getting enough sleep can have serious consequences. This is especially true for children and adolescents, whose developing brains are very sensitive to insufficient sleep. Teens need as much sleep as do adults, maybe more. They need eight to 10 hours for optimal function, but studies have found that few get this much sleep.
Studies also find that most teens tend to be “night owls”: They want to go to sleep late and get up late. But school doesn’t allow this. So they stay up later than they should, and get up before their inner clock would have them do so.
Teens also have a tendency to “crash” on the weekends, sleeping in late when they can. This adjusts their inner clock in a way that makes it harder for them to awaken on time Monday morning.
Because I’m not a pediatrician or a sleep expert, I sought advice from my colleague Dr. Dennis Rosen, associate medical director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Dr. Rosen cited a recent study published in the journal Sleep. In the study, researchers compared two groups of high school students. During the week, half the kids were chosen at random to sleep nine hours per night and the other half only five hours per night. Not surprisingly, the sleep-deprived kids demonstrated impaired cognitive function, alertness and mood during their week of five-hour nights as compared with their peers. It also took them more than two nights of “recovery sleep” to catch up again.
One way of helping kids get the sleep they need is by eliminating things that tempt them into staying awake. The most common reasons are electronic devices in the bedroom: TVs, computers, tablets and smartphones. Using such devices before sleep not only reduces the amount of time the kids sleep, but also causes poorer quality sleep.
Another strategy to help your daughter fall asleep more easily is to remove stressors from her bedroom and encourage her to relax before bedtime. This means, for example, that she should not do her homework in the bedroom (and never in bed!). Have your daughter do her homework at the dining room table instead. This creates a distinct boundary between the pressures of the day and the comforting space of the bedroom.
Likewise, encourage your daughter to end her day with 20 to 30 minutes of mindfulness practice, yoga or quiet reading. This can help your teen redirect herself to a different plane as she gets ready to sleep.
Ideally, your teen will stick to a regular sleep schedule, going to sleep and waking up at the same time seven days a week. But I don’t need a sleep expert to tell me that that’s probably a pipe dream.