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Why your teen likely needs more sleep – and how you can help

Health Advisor is a regular column where contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging. Follow us @Globe_Health.

A new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) highlights the importance of teenagers' sleep. Most teens don't get enough, and this sleep deficit has potential consequences on school performance and may contribute to a range of physical and mental health problems, including risk of car crashes, obesity and depression. The report states that adolescents should get 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep a night, and emphasizes that parents, schools, sports coaches and the teens themselves must recognize this sleep need.

Why don't teens get enough sleep? There are many factors, including the demands and timing of school, social activities, after-school work, sports and the use of electronic devices, all combined with a "phase delay" of the sleep-wake system that occurs in adolescence.

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Phase delay is the tendency to go to sleep later and wake up later than the rest of us, a phenomenon confirmed in teens by a large body of research. Adolescents take longer to fall asleep than children and adults, and have a later secretion of melatonin, a hormone released in darkness that precedes sleep onset.

The report, published in the Journal pediatrics, points out that one overarching factor that influences sleep duration for adolescents is school start time. Not being early birds, teens have a particularly hard time with early starts. The recommendation is that classes start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. for this age group. In several U.S. school systems, delaying start times by as little as 30 minutes – to 8:30 or later – was accompanied by longer sleep duration and reduced daytime sleepiness in adolescents.

Although ultra-early start times may not be as common in Canada as in the United States, school systems here should be aware of the potential benefits of later schedules. Toronto's Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute is one of Canada's few public high schools with a later start time: First period is at 10 a.m., allowing students to get more sleep and thereby providing conditions conducive to health and academic achievement.

Dr. Shelly Weiss, director of the Sleep Neurology Clinic at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children and past president of the Canadian Sleep Society, agrees that schools shouldn't start before 8:30 a.m.

She finds that many adolescents don't realize they need so much sleep, and that they think they can catch up on weekends. However, getting regular and sufficient sleep during the week is a better strategy – one associated with higher grades.

While behavioural techniques can help reset the body clock, in some circumstances a visit to a physician will be necessary and helpful. Conditions to watch out for include loud snoring (which may be a sign of restricted airflow at night), loss of interest in activities (which may be sign of depression), extreme and persistent difficulty getting up for school, or daytime lethargy (which could be signs of a sleep, mood or another disorder).

Sleep is important for optimal mood, functioning and health. Its significance is sometimes overlooked, especially in teens. In accord with the AAP policy statement, let's keep sleep in mind as we shift into fall activities.

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Tips for helping your teen keep the sleep-wake rhythm strong and for falling asleep in the first place:

  • Have a regular bedtime and, more importantly, a regular wake time.
  • Make a regular time for breakfast.
  • If your teen must sleep in on weekends, limit it to no more than one hour.
  • Keep all electronic devices out of the bedroom, including phones, computer screens and televisions. The light from the screens, and concomitant social interaction or mental processing driven by the devices pushes sleep later.
  • Set a screen time curfew.
  • Beware of caffeinated drinks, especially energy drinks, which are loaded with stimulants that counteract normal sleep processes.
  • Teenagers sometimes describe using marijuana or alcohol to improve their sleep. Not only are they illegal and harmful to health, these substances are not helpful for sleep. – Dr. Weiss, Dr. Davidson

Dr. Judith R. Davidson is a clinical psychologist and sleep researcher. She works with the Kingston Family Health Team and Queen's University at Kingston. She is the author of Sink into Sleep: A Step-by-Step Workbook for Reversing Insomnia. You can follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at @JudithRDavidson

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