Teens and Sleep

by Lucie Hemmen on February 26, 2012

You know you’re parenting a teen when you hear: 

“But I’m NOT TIRED!”

and unlike earlier years, when she was eyes closed/mouth agape two minutes later, your teen actually means it.  It’s 11 p.m. and she’s still moving around the house…..keeping YOU awake.  What’s going on with teens and sleep anyway?

As it turns out, the teen brain is changing as dramatically as the teen body.  Something called a Phase Shift occurs which means teen brains release melatonin (the brain’s sleep serum) a full 90 minutes later than adults or pre-teens.  Right about the time your brain craves blissful slumber, your teen’s brain craves Netflix instant view and a little Facebook time!  The cruelest twist? When teens are rousting themselves awake for a day at school, their brains are STILL releasing melatonin.  Yikes!  You can imagine how that affects everything from learning to morning car accident rates among teen drivers.

Sleep experts say that while many teens are able to survive on too little sleep, they actually need nine hours to function well. Mood, memory, growth, learning, test scores, and emotional control all take a serious hit when teens don’t get enough sleep.  The next time your teen has a meltdown, forgets something important, or under-performs on a test, consider sleep deprivation to be a possible culprit.

To support teens, some schools are changing start times to a more brain friendly hour. In 2002 Kyla Wahlstrom and her research team at the University of Minnesota Center for Applied Research and Education reported that when a high school in Minnesota changed its start time from 7:25 to 8:30, math SAT scores of the brightest students bumped up 56 points and verbal SAT scores bumped up 156 points! Those students also reported higher motivation and lower levels of depression.  Hopefully results like this will lead to later start times for high schools across America.

More from sleep research:

  • According to surveys of the National Sleep Foundation, 90% of American parents think their child is getting enough sleep.  Interestingly, 60% of high schoolers report extreme daytime sleepiness.  Up to 33% of teens admit to falling asleep in class at least once a week.
  • Teenagers are the most sleep-deprived segment of the population.
  • Teens who get less than nine hours sleep, when given the opportunity to sleep in midmorning, tend to fall straight into REM sleep (an active, dream inducing stage of sleep), a sign of severe sleep deprivation.
  • Teens who don’t get adequate sleep do less well in school and score higher on tests measuring sadness or hopelessness.
  • Sleepy teens experience emotions that are less controlled and more exaggerated.
  • Without enough sleep, the brain doesn’t have enough downtime to “retune”.
  • Sleep deprivation is correlated with a range of hormonal dysfunction including elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol and an impaired ability to process glucose, a condition that can contribute to obesity and type-2 diabetes.

In my next blog, I’ll share ideas to coax teens into better sleep habits.  If you have any tips, please leave a comment and I’ll include it in Part 2 of this blog.  Thanks and Sleep Well!



{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

carrie morris February 28, 2012 at 3:44 am

Hey Dr. Lucie,
Thanks for setting us straight about the amount of sleep our kids truly need! My 16 year old daughter tends to head off to bed pretty early, puts in her Twitter time and then goes to sleep by 9:30-10:00 ish. It is interesting to me that she then chooses to get up two hours before she really has to! She says she prefers the early morning time to relax before she drives off (all by herself!!!) to school…Am already looking forward to the sleep tips!! Thanks for the great info.


lucie hemmen February 29, 2012 at 3:50 pm

very cool that your daughter honors her quiet time and will go to such lengths to ensure she has it. it sounds like it’s her natural call to self-care.


Susan Lasko February 28, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Hi Lucie,
What about giving melatonin to a teen earlier in the evening, say at 8:30 to promote sleepiness at 9:30? I have read it’s effective for many. Would the teen keep secreting melatonin later into the morning? Any thoughts/experience/references?


lucie hemmen February 29, 2012 at 3:54 pm

great question. since i’m not an M.D., I hesitate to recommend anything taken internally other than sleepy tea formulas, which many teens love. let me ask a medical professional for thoughts on teens taking melatonin. I’ll either get it posted here or include the info in my follow up blog.


Heidi Lewin February 28, 2012 at 8:52 pm

Great information Lucie! This is all so interesting and worth noting as supportive parents. Also, I must say, I think good sleep habits with teens start with good sleep habits as children. It is important for parents to support their kids by insisting on healthy amounts at an early age and sticking to the program as they get older. I have seen so many parents who are fine with their kids going to bed at 2 or 3am and operating on a few hours of sleep. Weather they have sports events, school or nothing to do the next day this sleep can not just be “made up” in a timely manor and usually compromises their health or performance. And, it would be great if our school systems would support this reality that teen brains function on a different time table and start classes at a reasonable time. Something to think about for sure! Thanks for the tid-bits of wisdom.


lucie hemmen February 29, 2012 at 4:01 pm

great points, thank you for your thoughts. I know later start dates create a challenge in terms of getting teens to school for some families but I would love to see thoughtful attention given to this topic nationwide. as a freshman, my older daughter had a later start time at our local high school and the benefits were significant.


Beth Wann February 29, 2012 at 1:53 am

I also think it’s important for parents to set an example of good sleep habits. We’ve always encouraged our kids (by our example) to end their day, after homework etc., by curling up in bed with a good book or magazine. I think that by helping our brains “detach” from our busy days lulls us into a better night’s sleep. Great information as always! Thank you.


lucie hemmen February 29, 2012 at 4:04 pm

it’s so true that we teach our kids most powerfully by serving as models. it’s easy to get caught up in talking “at” kids when leading by example shows them so much more. thank you for your thoughts!


Betsy maushardt February 29, 2012 at 4:27 am

My pediatrician made a big deal about the need for teens to go to bed by 10. I’ve also seen reports that turning off electronics a couple hour before helps our brains settle down. This is an important issue for both teens and parents.


lucie hemmen February 29, 2012 at 4:05 pm

great point about technology! i’ll make sure to include that in the upcoming blog of suggestions. thank you for commenting betsy!


"Aaron Morse, MD March 9, 2012 at 4:09 am

Teenagers tend to have a later sleep phase, that is, their intrinsic circadian rhythm tends to be later. Some teens (7-15%) have a severe sleep delay known as delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS). In these cases, the sleep phase may be delayed to very late, anywhere from 2-4 AM or later. Getting out of bed at an appropriated hour can be very difficult.

The primary treatment of DSPS is early morning bright light therapy given on a specific schedule. This can actually shift the onset of sleep to a earlier time. Low dose melatonin (0.5 mg) can be used in addition to help shift the sleep schedule, however it is not usually effective as sole treatment.

Higher doses may work as a sleep medication, however the concern about high melatonin levels in the morning is legitimate, and there is little known about the effects of long term use of melatonin. In addition, melatonin is not a “drug” so it is not regulated. If melatonin is used, it should be produced by a lab, usually sold in drug stores, rather than a “natural” product which may be available in health food stores.

If a teenager has mild DSPS, a consistent wake up time, exposure to early morning light, and low light in the evening along with minimizing stimulating activities in the later evening (computers, TV, homework, etc.)

If this is not successful or if the sleep delay is severe, the patient should be seen by a sleep specialist with experience in managing this disorder.


Lucie Hemmen March 9, 2012 at 4:50 am

Thanks Dr. Morse! We appreciate your medical expertise.


Anonymous April 2, 2012 at 8:57 pm

One time, I fell asleep in my english class, no one woke me up and I slept through lunch. Other students walked in and woke me up. It was awkward, haha, but yeah that was ten years ago. Sleep works, it really does, its the foundation of happiness in my opinion, no matter how good things are in your life, if you don’t have sleep you won’t be happy.


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