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Why teens sleep patterns change

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Changing sleep cycles

Why has your teen resisted going to bed at a decent time? Maybe biology is to blame. Recently my town has started to address school start times and their appropriateness for the changing circadian rhythms of the adolescent. I had a serious A HA! moment as the school administration presented research on the topic. So that's why Alfs can't seem to fall asleep at night and is a bear to get up in the mornings!
Sleeping Teen

It turns out that changing sleep patterns are a part of adolescence. Rather than battling these sleep patterns, I probably should learn some strategies for working with them. After all, there are going to be two more adolescents coming up in the next several years.

What's happening

During adolescence - usually teen years but sometimes as early as age 10 - sleep patterns naturally shift toward later sleep and wake cycles. Your child may vary, of course, but for some kids, it becomes "natural" according to their internal body clock, not to be able to fall asleep until 11:00PM. Even with ongoing bedtime routines and good bedtime habits, this can occur. On the other end, it can be as hard to get the kids up in the morning because their bodies want - and need - to sleep later. If you are in a school district with a particularly early start time, you can rest assured you are not the only parent facing this challenge.

This is certainly something I see in my house. We've maintained an early-ish bedtime for Alfs as we've been concerned about sleep - though I admit we figured the issue was much simpler. We figured we "just" needed to get him to bed earlier to have less of a battle in the mornings. Turns out it wasn't so simple.

Teenagers still need between 8 1/2 and 9 1/4 hours of sleep a night. Right now, whether or not Alfs gets that is highly variable. If he were to be able to drop off right at the appointed bedtime (as his younger brother does), he'd be in the zone. The reality, though, is much different. And with classes starting at 7:20 every weekday morning, it's no wonder Alfs likes to sleep quite late on weekend mornings.

Symptoms and consequences of adolescent sleep deprivation

As I started to read up on teen sleep issues myself, I was fairly well shocked by what I found. While I pretty much figured that the ability to concentrate, learn, and problem-solve in those early morning hours after not enough sleep was limited, I didn't know about other issues.

The National Sleep Foundation says that lack of sleep can contribute to acne, aggressive and inappropriate behaviors, unhealthy eating and thus weight gain, driving safety (for the older teen) and so on. Some studies suggest that lack of sleep leads to ADD and ADHD-like symptoms, and can contribute to depression and anxiety disorders. This is no little issue!

What we can do

So what can we do? While I want to respect natural sleep cycles to a certain extent, so I am not fighting a totally losing battle, as a parent it's by job to help my kids establish healthy sleep habits. I'm not about to throw caution to the wind and tell my son to go to bed when he feels like it. There is an opportunity for thoughtful parenting here.

As sleep routines can be very important with young children, they can help the older child:
  • I'll help my son define and stick to a regular time for bed at night and a routine for getting there.
  • I'll take a look at our earlier evening routine, too, to make sure homework and instrument practice and chores can be achieved with enough time for my son to wind down at the end of the day.
  • I'll be careful about the foods available for night-time snacking; caffeinated items would not be helpful now.
  • I'll work with my son to agree on a morning routine, too, to head off possible conflict when we are both still groggy and just waking up.
I hope that these efforts will help my son keep good sleep habits, whether or not the school start time changes next school year.

Affecting positive external changes

In some communities, it may be appropriate to approach your child's school and ask about reconsidering the school start time. Talk to school committee members, administrators at all levels and other parents to measure support. Know that change of this kind is a very emotional issue for some people - more than you think! To achieve a school start time adjustment for older kids might require a change for the younger kids in your community, too, so you need to be prepared for many discussions, education, and, eventually, buy-in. It might be a hard path, but the greater benefits for all the teens in your community could really be worth it; there are many web resources and experts available to consult on the topic.

Eventually all our kids will move through this adolescent sleep change into adult sleep patterns. With any luck and some careful consideration, we'll get our kids through it with good health and good sleep habits.

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