We know children are sleeping less now than they did 30 years ago. Research studies are piling up that assimilate the ill effects of our lack of shut-eye. When children don’t get the sleep they need they suffer. And not only in the ways we may expect. Sure, they are grumpy and irritable but research also shows children who create a sleep debt also have a more difficult time completing school work, they don’t score as well on tests, they may be more distractible while having difficulty maintaining attention, and they may be at higher risk for having an unhealthy weight. Further, tired teens who are on the road driving in the early morning are at more risk for motor vehicle accidents. Data shows that more than 1/2 of all early morning accidents attributed to drowsiness occurred in drivers between 16 and 25 years of age.

Teens are potentially at the greatest risk for drowsiness because they tend to naturally fall asleep later and school start times get shifted earlier and earlier. Here in the Seattle area, many schools start at 7:30 am (school bell times). And multiple students in clinic this past week have shared with me that they are attending extra classes during “zero period” that begins at 6:30am! That means, many teens are responding to a 5:00am alarm clock. If these teens aren’t to bed until near-midnight, come October they are going be exhausted.

Typical Sleep Needs For Children And Teens

  • Preschoolers: 10-12 hours of total sleep (night time sleep + naps). Most children naturally get tired and ready for bed between 7pm and 9pm at night. Most 4 year-old phase out their nap prior to turning 5.
  • School-age children: 10-11 hours total sleep. Most children get to bed around 8pmbut as they near age 12, they may naturally “phase shift” later into the night. That means as they age and go through puberty, many tweens aren’t really tired until around 9pm or 10pm.  Puberty brings on changes to their sleep cycle and thus shifts them later.
  • 12 year-old to teens: 8 1/2-9 1/2 hours total sleep. Most teens aren’t tired until 9pm or later. To get the amount of sleep they need, you really have to help them prioritize bedtime. Between the lure of Facebook, the average of >100 text messages sent daily (!), and the academic demands of school, coupled with extra-curricular activities,  it can be tough. Learning to value sleep is life skill. If you’re having trouble getting these hours in, you’ll see your teen catch up on sleep during the weekend. This is sleep debt. They can fill the bank and replenish the sleep debt by sleeping in on weekends, but it’s imperfect. Allow them to sleep in, but help them also keep the same bedtime Friday and Saturday as best they can.

6 Tips To Help Your Child Prioritize Sleep For School

  1. Work to design and agree upon (as a family) a reasonable bed time for your child or teen. Eight o’clock for school age children and 9:30pm-10pm for teens may be most reasonable.
  2. Set them up for success when falling asleep–let them get tired in the right ways (busy, active days). Ways to decrease the minutes it takes to fall asleep: no screens in the bedroom (this includes phones!), exercise during the day, keep the same bedtime every night, and avoid other activities in bed other than sleep. No caffeine after 12pm and no screens (TV, computer) for 2 hours before bed if they are having difficulty falling asleep, too.
  3. If your child or teen is lying awake for more than 45-60 minutes at night, talk with their physician. Sometimes difficulties falling asleep can be a sign of a sleep problem, a possible anxiety challenge, or a struggle with depression.
  4. Have patience. If your child has been staying up until midnight all summer long, it may take a couple of weeks to get them back to a 9:30pm bedtime. Every 3-5 days, bring the bedtime back by 30 minutes. Although their bodies to shift gradually back to a natural sleep time. If you are really struggling to get them to bed before 10 or 11pm, check in with their physician or ARNP. Sometimes we use OTC medications for a few days to help children relax and fall asleep more quickly.
  5. If you child or teen feels like they simply can’t get to bed by the time agreed upon because of sports, homework, and/or other responsibilities—it’s time to re-think the commitments. It’s never going to be the wrong thing to drop one activity and get adequate sleep. Children in Minnesota who got 1 more hour of sleep also boosted their SAT scores. It’s not always more schooling that is necessary for academic success, sleep is a huge part of the equation.
  6. There a national movement to move school start times later for middle and high-school students. Join the effort? Here’s some information about the Start School Later Campaign with great links and data about the consequences of inadequate sleep.