School has started, and you may have noticed some changes in your teenager. He or she may be finding it difficult to concentrate and get up in the morning, be moodier or more aggressive than usual, and have slowed reaction times. These are all signs of not getting enough sleep.
It is so easy to sweep the importance of sleep under the carpet, figuring you will catch up on the weekend. While you can catch up to a point, chronic sleep deprivation, even if you are short by only an hour or so each night, can have a serious impact on your health and well-being. Besides the effects described above, not getting enough sleep can make you more susceptible to illness and depression, more likely to be in an automobile accident, and lead to weight gain.
Teenagers have busy schedules full of school, friends, after-school sports and jobs, and homework. We all remember how invincible we felt as teenagers; it is no wonder they don’t make sleep a priority. On top of that, puberty causes a shift in the sleep cycle that causes a tendency to stay up later at night and sleep in later in the morning when given the opportunity. That can make the early start of a typical high school day pretty difficult.
The end result is sleep-deprived teens.
What is a parent to do? To get your teen to buy in to the idea that some changes need to be made so that he gets more sleep, my first recommendation is to talk with your teen. If possible, rather than tell her that she is sleep deprived, try to steer the conversation in a way that she realizes it on her own. Once that is accomplished, you can discuss together the importance of sleep. Talk about how being well rested can make it easier to learn and to concentrate, improve athletic performance, make it easier for her body to fight off infections like winter colds, and leave her plain feeling better.
Once you have achieved a buy-in and your teen agrees to make sleep a priority, you can work together to come up with strategies, and maybe even a schedule, for her to get more sleep. I recommend making a teen’s bedroom an electronic device-free area that is quiet, cool and dark. In addition to making her bedroom a sleep haven, I also recommend the following:
Avoid coffee, tea, caffeinated soda, chocolate, and nicotine after 4 p.m.
Take a 30-minute nap before 5 p.m. whenever possible.
Choose a regular bed- and wake-time that includes the weekends.
Find a bedtime preparation routine and stick to it.
Avoid eating, drinking or exercising close to bedtime.
Turn off the TV, computer or phone an hour before bedtime.
Do homework and study as early as possible in the day and avoid leaving it until the last minute.
Keep a diary or to-do list to avoid mulling about things at night rather than sleeping.
All of my recommendations are not only good ideas for teens, they are general good sleep hygiene practices that can help all of us get more and better sleep. Modeling good sleep practices for your teen so that you are not in a “Do as I say, not as I do” situation will be helpful when getting your teen to buy in to adopting needed changes. As a bonus, you will probably feel better too.
Dr. Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician practicing at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center.