Teen Sleep Deprivation...Are
They Lazy, or Just Plain Tired?
Teen sleep deprivation is on the rise in our society. The overwhelming amount
of extra activities that our children are involved in, coupled with the early start of school, has created a society of sleepy teenagers.
The ideal amount of sleep at any given age varies widely between individuals, but adolescence is a particularly difficult age at which to pinpoint and ensure the proper amount of sleep.
Sleep deprivation in teens is an area of concern because we know that during these years, a teenager requires more sleep than during his or her preteen years. However, studies show that adolescents actually obtain much less sleep than they did during those preteen years.
Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation in Teens
Teen sleep deprivation is a very common complaint. If he or she is suffering from sleep deprivation, look for the following signs:
- complaints of daytime sleepiness
- have trouble staying awake in school
- have great difficulty getting out of bed in the morning
- experience great fatigue
- emotional liability
- poor impulse control
- poor decision making
Causes of Teen Sleep Deprivation
For many years it was felt that the sleepiness of adolescents was their own fault. Their busy social agenda and need for independence led to too many late nights. Recently, however, a different picture has emerged.
Studies have recently shown that the internal, biologic sleep-timing mechanism is reset along with the other changes of puberty. Their bodies signal them to go to sleep at a later hour and also to sleep later in the morning. They are often incapable of falling asleep earlier. Their school schedules, however, continue to force them out of bed at an early hour. This is leading to a population of chronically sleep deprived adolescents.
Many teens are able to cope with chronic low-level sleep deprivation, often gaining some catch-up sleep by "sleeping in" on the weekends. Others, however, cannot play the game of catch up, and can suffer from severe sleep deprivation.
The average thirteen year old needs about 10 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period. However, adequacy of sleep should be determined by a careful evaluation of symptoms rather than by relying on numbers obtained from a large sample of adolescents.
"The average adolescent needs 9-10 hours of sleep per night... most teens are not reaching that sleep goal"
Treatment for Teen Sleep Deprivation
If insufficient sleep is identified, telling the teen to "just go to bed earlier" is ineffective and alienating. Either the adolescent's schedule should be adjusted to complement his body's internal clock, or the internal clock can be gradually reset through a process called chronotherapy. This will only work if your child understands the problem and is a willing partner in the process.
Sudden changes in sleep schedule do not help to reset the body's circadian rhythm. Instead, begin by stabilizing bedtime at an hour when it is easy and natural to fall asleep. Then, make the bedtime earlier by about 15 minutes each day (any more than this is too long to lure the circadian rhythm to follow).
During this process, naps must be avoided, and the procedure must be followed 7 nights a week. Upon awakening, exercise and exposure to light help to fix the new rhythm.
For children whose original bedtime is very late, it can be faster to move the bedtime later by 2 or 3 hours per night, around the clock, rather than backward by 15 minutes, --the circadian rhythm will follow. This works extremely well, but requires a committed adult to help enforce waking at the proper time.
Once a new schedule appropriate to the individual is attained, bedtime and wake-up time should be rigidly maintained for 2 to 3 weeks. Later, occassionally staying up late on weekend nights will not reset the clock, as long as he doesn't sleep in more than 1 or 2 hours later than he would for school.
Some sleep experts recommend giving melatonin about 90 minutes before the desired bedtime as a way to reset the biologic clock. Melatonin is available in health food stores, and now in some drug stores, too. Premliminary studies in adults look exciting, but we should still be cautious about its use in children. Melatonin is a potent chemical which also affects the reproductive system. No one really knows what effects it might have on the reproductive system if given before or during puberty.
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Swanson, Jennifer. Sleep Disorders Sourcebook. Detroit, Michigan: Omnigraphics, Inc., 1999:120-123.