The right amount of sleep for growing children and teens is important not only to help them mature properly but also to ensure they’re alert enough to pay attention and able to perform well in school. Some school districts realize the importance of sleep for children and have adjusted school start times accordingly. Still, many other schools across the country have start times incredibly early — some even before 8 o’clock in the morning!
What Happens When Children Don’t Get Enough Sleep?
Younger children need between 9 and 12 hours of sleep per night to help them reach developmental milestones, perform well academically and enjoy better health. Elementary-aged kids tend to naturally wake up and go to bed earlier than their older siblings so that they can meet their sleep hour requirements. Helping younger children get in tune with their body’s sleep and wake cycles, the circadian rhythm, and teaching them how to develop healthy bedtime routines can serve them well in adolescence.
But while early school start times may naturally work with the biology of younger children, such as teaching them when they’re more naturally alert, early school start times can have a negative effect on the health of middle and high school students.
The Effects of Poor Sleep on Adolescents
Many middle and high schools start earlier than 8:30 a.m., which can be detrimental to the overall health of the students. Between the expectations for different classes, including homework and studying for tests, participating in extracurricular activities and holding down after-school jobs, many high school students have busier schedules than their parents! All these activities take a toll, and often, middle and high school students may not get in bed before 11 p.m. or midnight.
When the alarm goes off at 7 a.m., this results in many kids this age getting less than the 8 to 10 hours per night that the CDC recommends. Over time, not getting enough sleep has a cumulative effect on the body, not just making teenagers tired but also contributing to poor health in general. The results of chronic lack of sleep include:
- Higher risk of being overweight due to unhealthy eating habits and cravings for sugar and carbs
- Higher instances of alcohol and tobacco use
- More likely to engage in drug abuse, including taking stimulant pills to stay awake to study or just make it through the day
- Decreased ability to focus and perform well academically
- Reduced performance athletically and a higher chance of injuries
Sleep and Puberty
The hormonal shifts in puberty, for both boys and girls, change their bodies’ circadian rhythms. If you notice that younger children still enjoy waking up early, but tweens and teens can easily sleep till noon, it’s not “just a teenage thing” but rather the effects of biology on the adolescent body. Teenagers naturally prefer to go to sleep later and will, therefore, rise later, too.
This, plus the increase in electronics in the bedroom, leads to many middle and high school students not getting proper amounts of sleep and not having the high-quality sleep they need to succeed.
Ways You Can Help Your Children Sleep Better
While you may not be able to change what time your local school starts, there are still plenty of things parents and caregivers can do to help their growing adolescents have a better night’s sleep.
- Limit after-school activities. Especially for athletics, if practices and games are later in the evening, it’s difficult for teens to be ready for bed within a couple of hours. In fact, vigorous exercise often has the opposite effect on a person. It raises the core body temperature, elevates the heart rate and releases endorphins (the “happy hormone”), all of which signal to the body that it’s time to wake up, not time for sleep.
- Put electronics in a “time out” before bed. The blue light from a phone, computer screen or tablet has a poor effect on the eyes, especially for people who are trying to go to sleep. Plus, using electronics and watching TV can be stimulating instead of soothing, and having the TV or music on may disrupt the body’s ability to enter the restorative deep sleep cycles.
- Set regular bedtimes, even on the weekends. While staying up late for a sleepover once in a while is fine, setting regular bed and wake-up times helps the body naturally regulate its sleep-wake cycles and makes it easier for teens (and everyone in the family) to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Help your teen get into a regular bedtime routine. This can include some of the things that you might enjoy, such as a warm bath, a cup of caffeine-free tea or using lavender oils and infusions in the room (lavender helps promote sleepiness).
Other Ways You Can Help
If you’re concerned about the early start time for your child’s middle and high schools, you have options. Work with other parents and the school system to start secondary schools later — after 8:30 —to address the physical needs of teens. For example, public officials in Connecticut approved a study looking into school start times introduced by the Department of Education.
While there are many things to consider, such as bus route planning, carpooling and school ending later in the day, which can affect sports practices, the health benefits of good night’s sleep for teens can’t be overstated.
Ensuring that children and adolescents get enough sleep during the school year can help them improve their academic performance and enjoy better health. Plus, starting good sleep habits while children and teens are young will help them later in life. Working with your schools to start later, allowing middle and high schoolers to have plenty of sleep, can truly benefit the health of all students.