Sleep for Teenagers - Why Is It So Important?

Teenage Boy Asleep In Bed At Home

From the time they hit adolescence until the age of 22, teens experience significant brain and body changes. This transition from childhood to adulthood brings vital developments that affect their social and family life, emotions, and personality. During this time, sleep plays a pivotal role in contributing to teenagers’ overall health and well-being, allowing them to be at their very best.

But how much sleep do teenagers need? According to the National Sleep Foundation, teens need about 8 – 10 hours of sleep each night. Unfortunately, most teenagers experience numerous challenges that prevent them from getting this recommended amount of sleep. In fact, only about 8% of American teens get the consistent and restorative sleep they need. The rest struggle with chronic sleep deprivation from mild to moderate, but more than 59% live with severe sleep deprivation.

And remember, inadequate sleep negatively affects their ability to concentrate and perform exceptionally well in school. Research also links poor sleep to health issues ranging from obesity, type 2 diabetes to anxiety and depression.

So, what’s a parent to do?

Here’s everything you need to know about teens and sleep, including why it’s hard for them to get enough sleep and how parents can help improve their sleep hygiene for better sleep.

Why Do Teens Need More Sleep?

While sleep plays a vital role in your physical health irrespective of age, profound growth and development in teens and infants require more sleep.

Emotional Health

Sleep has links to people’s social and emotional intelligence. An individual who doesn’t get enough sleep is more likely to have problems recognizing other people’s expressions and emotions. Over time, these effects can be more severe in teenagers adapting to new social relationships, more independence, and responsibility.

Inadequate sleep in teenagers may negatively affect emotional health, increasing risks for interpersonal conflict and mental health issues. Fortunately, improving sleep in adolescents can play a crucial role in preventing mental disorders and minimizing their symptoms.

Improve Concentration and Productivity

Sleep is crucial for several aspects of brain function. Cognition, productivity, performance, and concentration are all affected negatively by sleep deprivation. A certain study on overworked doctors offers a perfect example. It showed that physicians with very high, high, and moderate sleep-related impairment were 97%,96%, and 54% more likely to report medical errors.

Similarly, getting enough sleep can significantly improve academic performance in children, especially teens and young adults. Lastly, quality sleep has been shown to enhance memory performance and improve problem-solving skills in both teenagers and adults.

Thinking and Academic Achievement

According to various sleep experts, prolonged sleep loss reduces cognitive abilities and can even affect school performance in young adults and teens. While fewer studies have examined the effects of inadequate sleep in children, the existing evidence shows that lack of quality sleep can harm academic performance and achievement in several ways.

A direct way that sleep is linked to thinking and academic achievement is through the various effects on mental function. Some well-known issues connected to poor sleep include:

  • Impaired memory
  • Slowed processing
  • Decreased attention
  • Reduced creativity
  • Worsened sequential thinking

Sleep deprivation can also affect performance due to the various effects on mood and behavior. For instance, napping throughout the day due to prolonged sleep loss can disrupt learning. Other ways sleep deprivation affects thinking, and academic achievement include:

  • Poor decision-making: Limited sleep hinders the development of brain parts involved in making good decisions.
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness: Daytime drowsiness can have considerable consequences for school achievement. Dozing off for a few seconds during the day (microsleeps) can cause students to fall asleep on their desks, thus interrupting learning. This can also be viewed as a behavior problem by teachers.
  • Depression and anxiety: In both teens and adults, sleep deprivation is linked with a high risk of anxiety and depression. These conditions can directly impact a student’s overall health and school performance.

Physical Health and Development

Sleep contributes significantly to the effective functioning of nearly every body system. For instance, it enables muscle and tissue recovery, helps regulate hormones, and empowers the immune system.

Substantial physical growth and development happens during puberty and can be affected by poor sleep. For instance, research has it that teenagers who don’t get quality sleep tend to have a troubling metabolic profile. This puts them at a much higher risk of long-term cardiovascular problems.

Why Is It So Hard for Teenagers to Get Enough Sleep?

Several factors can contribute to sleep problems in teens and young adults, and in some instances, a combination of factors may be involved. Apart from drinking alcohol and bedtime procrastination, these are some of the most common causes of sleep problems for teens:

Sleep Disorders

Some teenagers have poor sleep due to an underlying sleep disorder. This can include:

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

OSA happens when the tissues located in the back of your throat collapse as you sleep, preventing air from getting into the lungs. This is a common issue because the throat muscles relax during sleep. Gravity then causes your tongue to fall back, thus blocking the airway. These repeated pauses in breathing during sleep can cause excessive daytime sleepiness and fragmented sleep. Overweight young adults and teens are at a high risk of having obstructive sleep apnea.

Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorder

Circadian rhythm sleep disorders are common in teens. They’re problems with your circadian rhythm (internal body clock) that keep the biological processes in your body in step. Typically, this body clock is set by the cycle of dark and light over 24 hours. It plays a crucial role in controlling when you fall asleep and wake up. Cell regrowth, hormone production, and patterns of brain waves are also linked to this cycle.

Signs of this disorder include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep until late evening or early morning hours
  • Difficulty staying asleep and often waking up several times at night during the sleep cycle
  • Waking up too early and failing to go back to sleep

Narcolepsy

This is a common sleep disorder in people between the ages of 15 – 25. It’s characterized by overwhelming daytime tiredness and sudden attacks of sleep. If you have this condition, you may find it challenging to stay awake for a long time, irrespective of the circumstances.

Delayed Sleep Schedule and Early School Start Times

Many teens tend to label themselves night owls, staying up deep into the night and sleeping away the entire Saturday. Sleep experts believe this happens due to a two-fold biological impulse affecting teens’ internal body clock and circadian rhythm.

For starters, teens tend to have a different circadian rhythm. Their sleep drive builds more slowly, so most of them won’t start to feel tired and sleepy until later in the evening. Second, their bodies wait longer before they start secreting melatonin (the hormone that promotes sleep).

If left to sleep on their own schedule, most teens would probably get the recommended amount of sleep. However, the early school start times in various school districts across the country force them to wake up very early. And because of the biological impulse affecting their sleep-wake cycle and master clock, many teenagers can’t get enough sleep and still wake up early to arrive at school on time.

With reduced sleep on school days, students may try to compensate by sleeping in during weekends, but this may only exacerbate their inconsistent and delayed sleep schedule.

Use of Electronic Devices

It is increasingly common for adolescents to use electronic devices, such as laptops, tablets, and cell phones, later in the evening. According to a 2014 Sleep in America poll by the National Sleep Foundation, about 89% of teens have at least one electronic device in their bedroom at night.

Screen time late into the evening stimulates the brain, making it harder to get to sleep. These devices emit blue light, which can interfere with normal sleep by suppressing melatonin production.

Time Pressure

From handling school assignments, work obligations, and household chores to creating time for social life and community activities, it is quite clear that young adults often have their hands full. With so much to do in a single day, most teens rarely allocate enough time for sleep.

Instead, they may stay up late during school week working on assignments or during the weekend when watching movies or hanging out with friends. Pressure to manage all these extensive commitments and meet deadlines can be stressful, which can contribute to sleep problems and insomnia.

Other Health Conditions

Sleep issues may be more likely in teens and children with various other conditions, such as mental health problems and neurodevelopmental disorders like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Poor sleep can also lead to more pronounced symptoms of these health conditions.

So, How Can Parents Help Their Kids Get Better Sleep and Improve Academic Performance?

It’s pretty normal for parents to want to give it their all in supporting their kids in school. Given the vital role that sleep plays in school performance, parents can decide to make promoting good sleep behavior a pillar of their children’s learning.

Generally, better sleep starts by discussing sleep hygiene and the several benefits of sleep with their kids. This can act as a jumping-off point for feasible steps to improving sleep. As a vital part of this process, it’s wise for parents to do their best in modeling good sleep habits, which can serve as a perfect example for their kids.

They can achieve this by making sleep a priority. This involves creating a daily schedule that accounts for their kids’ school start time and leaves enough time for them to get the recommended 8-9 hours of sleep. Remember, maintaining a consistent schedule supports steady sleep habits and reinforces the importance of sleep.

Studies also show that adolescents sleep better with parent-set bedtimes. Besides clarifying the daily schedule, setting up a bedtime protects against other activities from gradually cutting into sleep time.

As an extension of the strict bedtime, parents can work with their teens to create a relaxing bedtime routine to help them get ready for bed. Part of getting ready for sleep should include stopping the use of electronic gadgets. Most sleep experts recommend that both adults and teens stop using devices for about an hour before bedtime.

If you have kids, you can also help them sleep better by creating a comfortable and relaxing sleep environment. Just like adults, teens sleep better when they have comfortable bedding and a supportive mattress. You should also keep the kids’ bedroom dark and limit noise distractions.

How Can Adolescents Get Better Sleep?

Teens also have a role to play to ensure they get the quality sleep they need. Aside from sticking to a regular sleep routine and following parental advice, other general sleeping tips they can use include:

  • Avoid caffeine and energy drinks in the afternoon and evening
  • Avoid using electronics for at least an hour before sleep
  • Consider exercising regularly, which helps encourage healthy sleep patterns
  • Avoid overeating, or eating too little few hours before bedtime

Teens who are having trouble sleeping should also avoid long weekend lie-ins. Long lie-ins and late nights can easily disrupt the internal body clock, making it hard for them to sleep come school days.

Closing Thoughts

Most teenagers will get the sleep they deserve if they simply develop and maintain good sleep habits. However, if sleeping problems are persistent, severe, and affecting their behavior or thinking during the day, they should consider talking with their doctor. A pediatrician can determine whether they have a sleep disorder and make viable recommendations for treatment.

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