To exasperated parents of teens: It may seem like your kids are choosing to be night owls who’d rather not rise early in the morning but the truth is, they can’t help it. UR Medicine pediatric sleep expert Dr. Heidi Connolly says that teens’ natural sleep cycle is the culprit.
Kids’ natural sleep cycle can be pushed back by two hours during puberty. It’s this delay in biologic rhythm—not a stubborn streak—that leads to their preference to fall asleep later at night and wake later in the morning.
Unfortunately, their natural rhythms don’t coincide with typical school schedules. At many middle schools and high schools, the day’s first bell rings as early as 7 a.m.—before adolescent brains are fully alert. The American Academy of Pediatrics, in a recent policy statement, urged schools to start later and allow teens to get more sleep. Almost 90 percent of high schoolers are getting less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours per night.
Pushing school start times later is not just about making it easier for teens to drag themselves out of bed. Sleep-deprived teens are more prone to getting into car accidents, making poor and impulsive decisions, and having more difficulty learning. In fact, students who take a class early in the morning perform worse on standardized tests than students taking the same classes later in the day.
Sleep deprivation can also negatively impact their mood. And, over time, it can take a toll on their health, increasing their risk for cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorders.
Some may argue that pushing back school start times just gives teens an excuse to stay up later. But studies have shown that, even when their school day starts later, students go to sleep at about the same time they did before the time change. Since they are still falling asleep at the same time but don’t have to rise as early, teens who attend schools with later start times actually sleep considerably longer.
Shifting start times for schools is complicated and impacts school busing costs and routes, sports, and homework time. In the meantime, here are some things parents can do to help their teens get more sleep:
- Set a reasonable bedtime and practice a regular pre-bedtime routine
- Enforce a media curfew (no TV, computers or smartphones)
- Encourage teens to get lots of exercise and plenty of morning light exposure
- Set a good example
Heidi Connolly, M.D., is the chief of Pediatric Sleep Medicine at UR Medicine’s Golisano Children’s Hospital. She is an associate professor of Pediatrics and Psychology. Dr. Connolly received her bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, followed by her medical degree in 1988.