Too Many Teens May Be Sleepy Behind Their Desks- and Behind the Wheel

Back to School Means Adjusting Sleep Habits of Teens

August 18, 2003

School bells across the country will begin ringing in the coming days and weeks.  For many high school students, the classroom roll call can be as early as 7 a.m., when most teens are biologically programmed to be sleeping. Early high school start times may cause many teens to fall asleep in their early morning classes; they may also nod off behind the wheel driving to school putting themselves and others at risk for serious injury or even death. 

“A teen’s life as well as his/her ability to learn can be affected by the timing of that first morning school bell,” said Richard L. Gelula, executive director of the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). “Contrary to many beliefs, the early morning sleepiness teens experience isn’t because they’re lazy. They are sleep deprived, but it isn’t necessarily parties, video games and other activities keeping them awake until late at night. It’s their biological clocks,” Gelula added.

Studies show that most teens need an average of 9.25 hours of sleep each night.  But the sleep patterns of adolescents are affected by a phase delay, a natural tendency toward going to sleep and awakening later. A recent National Sleep Foundation poll showed that more than three-fourths of teens between the ages of 13-18 go to bed 11 p.m. or later on school nights, meaning that they are getting about two to three hours less than the recommended amount.

A troubling consequence of sleep deprivation at any age is drowsy driving. But for teens, their sleep deprivation and inexperience behind the wheel can make for a particularly lethal combination. A North Carolina state study found that drivers age 25 and younger cause more than one-half of fall asleep crashes.

 “Falling asleep in the classroom is bad for academics, falling asleep while operating a vehicle can be deadly,” said Donald Greenblatt, M.D., director of Strong Health’s Sleep Disorders Center.

In an effort to try to put school start times in sync with adolescent biological needs, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) introduced a congressional resolution, the “ZZZ’s to A’s” Act, that encourages individual schools and school districts all over the country to move school start times to no earlier than 8:30 a.m.  Public opinion seems to side with  Lofgren’s “Zzz’s to A’s” resolution.  According to NSF’s 2002 Sleep in America poll, 80 percent of respondents said high schools should start no earlier than 8:00 a.m. each day.

Back to School Sleep Tips

As summer vacation comes to an end, parents and guardians should begin planning for the school year by adjusting the sleeping habits of their children, especially adolescents.  NSF and Strong Health’s Sleep Disorders Center offer the following tips that should be maintained throughout the school year:

  •  Establish a school year sleep routine, which should begin one to two weeks before school starts by introducing a gradual change in the teen’s sleep schedule, such as going to bed 15-30 minutes earlier each night.  This change will allow the body’s natural sleep rhythm the time necessary to adjust to the new schedule. Once the regular bedtime and wake up time is established, it should be maintained throughout the school year, even on weekends.
  •   Establish a regular bedtime routine.  Bedtime routines are important, regardless of a child’s age.  It should include at least 15-30 minutes of calm, soothing activities.  Television, exercise, computer and telephone use should be discouraged, and caffeine (found in beverages, chocolate and other products) should be avoided in the hours before bedtime.
  •  Achieve a balanced schedule.  Identify and prioritize a teen’s activities that allow for downtime and sufficient sleep time.  Help students avoid an overloaded schedule that can lead to stress and difficulty coping, which contribute to poor health and sleep problems.
  •  Look for signs of sleep deprivation and sleepiness in your child. These signs, not always obvious, can include difficulty waking in the morning, irritability late in the day, falling asleep spontaneously during quiet times of the day, sleeping for extra long periods on the weekends.
  •  Let the sunshine in.  Bright light can help awaken your teen in the morning, but should be avoided in the evening.
  •  Be a good role model.  Make sleep a priority for yourself and your family by practicing good sleep habits, creating a home environment conducive to healthy sleep habits, and establishing regular sleep.

The National Sleep Foundation is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public health and safety by achieving greater understanding of sleep and sleep disorders, and by supporting education, sleep-related research, and advocacy.  NSF is based in Washington, D.C.  Strong Health’s Sleep Disorders Center is a member of the National Sleep Foundation, working with NSF as a Community Sleep Awareness Partner®.


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Germaine Reinhardt
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