Geoff Fouracre Teenage Sleeping


One issue that causes consternation for parents and children is the issue of when to go to bed!  Teenagers want to be nocturnal and parents want them to have earlier nights.  What does the research say?  How much sleep do children need?  What are the effects of insufficient sleep?  What are the effects on our health if we don’t get enough sleep?  And, they are important questions.

A common complaint of parents is “my child isn’t getting enough sleep!” It is one of the most common presenting issues amongst the students seen by School Counsellors in every school.  Research suggests that adolescents require about 9.5 hours of sleep (or more) every night but many are averaging just 7.5 hours or less.  And, amongst teenagers, a lack of sleep can quickly accumulate into a significant sleep debt. Most teenagers will use this as an excuse to sleep in on the weekends.  However, such a sleep pattern causes problems which can exceed the frustration it causes parents.

Research has shown that the short-term effects of sleep deprivation include fatigue, impaired attention and memory, lowered immunity and greater emotional sensitivity. In the long-term, sleep deprivation has been linked with an increased risk of emotional disorders, substance abuse, diabetes and cardio-vascular disease.

20-30% of teenagers will experience significant sleep problems at some stage during their teens.  These sleep problems vary and may be attributed to factors such as hormonal changes, the adolescent lifestyle and the onset of emotional problems during this tumultuous developmental stage.

It can be useful to view sleep problems as a symptom of other underlying issues. Sleep problems need to be taken seriously and approached holistically to help teenagers get back into a healthy sleep routine. A good starting point is to assess your child’s “sleep health”, which refers to the personal habits and environmental factors that influence length and quality of sleep.  Frequent napping, irregular sleep and wake routines, physical and mental arousal before bedtime, difficulty getting up in the mornings, use of stimulants (such as coffee) late in the day and problems with the physical sleeping environment are all signs of inadequate sleep health.

The increasing amount of time teenagers spend on computers and mobile phones is concerning. When it comes to impact on sleep, it may come as a surprise that light can be one of the biggest problems. In order to regulate and maintain our natural body clock we rely on external light and dark cues to help the hypothalamus in our brain regulate our circadian rhythms.

Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone which lowers body temperature and causes drowsiness, and its production is stimulated by darkness and suppressed by light. Research has found that light emitted by electronic devices such as smart phones and iPads can suppress melatonin production; which is especially problematic if these devices are used immediately before bedtime.  Unfortunately many teenagers are very active on mobile devices well into the late hours of the night when we think they are asleep.  This not only limits the amount of time available for quality sleep, but makes sleep difficult because of the stimulus effect of the light.

How can we help our teenagers to improve sleep health? Here are a few strategies which can assist you and your children to have healthy sleep habits;

  • Where possible, exercise earlier in the day rather than at night. Exercise has been linked with getting more deep sleep, which is needed for physical renewal and is when growth hormones are released.  Exercise early in the day can also create a feeling of accomplishment and increased energy.  Aerobic exercise also trains the body to burn fats in preference to sugars and can assist both adults and teenagers to reduce sugar intake.
  • Make the bedroom a pleasant place to sleep. A comfortable bed, and suitable temperature and lighting conditions help us sleep. The associations we make with this space are also important; avoiding doing other tasks such as homework in bed allows the body to know it is a place for sleeping.
  • Developing a consistent sleeping pattern. Going to bed and waking up at the same time during the week helps body rhythms stay regular.
  • Avoid caffeine later in the day. Stimulants such as coffee make it harder to fall sleep and can impact the length and quality of sleep. Poor sleepers should consider cutting caffeine out of their diets altogether.
  • Introduce an electronics curfew before going to bed. This will no doubt be met with resistance but ask your children to trial it.  Perhaps a “put your mobile phone on the kitchen table at 8.00pm” policy will work for you and your family.  Are there really any Facebook or Instagram posts that can’t wait until the morning?  Is it really worth compromising our health for?
  • Regular relaxation. Stress can cause insomnia so incorporating relaxing activities into the night routine (or even relaxation exercises) can assist sleep.
  • Avoid schoolwork before bedtime. We all need time to switch off after working on assignments and projects and children of all ages should not try to go straight to sleep after completing such tasks.  We all need to time to “switch off”” to prepare for sleep.

Some sleep issues are not easily corrected and if problems with sleep persist it is important that a health professional is consulted.  If left unchecked, poor sleep health in childhood and teenage years can become a lifetime health problem.

Bruck, D. (2006). Teenage sleep: Understanding and helping the sleep of 12-20 year olds. Wellness Promotion Unit, Victoria University, Melbourne.
Diaz-Morales, J.F., Prieto P.D., Barreno, C.E., Mateo, M.J.C., & Randler, C. (2012). Sleep beliefs and chronotype among adolescents: the effect of a sleep education program. Biological Rhythm Research, 43(4), 397-412.
Gamble, A. “Adolescent sleep: The perfect storm”. AIS School Counsellors’ Conference: The rich tapestry of school counselling. Terrigal, NSW. 24 May 2012.

Kintominas, I  “Teenagers and sleep” Wenona School