It’s true! Your teen really does need to sleep in on weekends

I wrote the following story for the Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer in Raleigh; it appeared in both newspapers on Oct. 18, 2011. It appears here in expanded form, with links. Check out yesterday’s post for more on teens and sleep.

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It’s 11 o’clock on a school night! you yell at your teen. You need to go to bed!

But I’m not tired! your wide-awake teen protests.

Well … go to bed, anyway! you reply, frustrated.

Frustrated, because your teen obviously isn’t tired, and just because he needs to get up in seven hours to make the 7:15 a.m. school bell,  it’s not like you can force him to sleep. Even more frustrating when you learn that science is on his side.

“There are certain times of day when teens are most alert,” says Dr. Tracey Marks, an Atlanta psychiatrist and author of “Master Your Sleep: Proven Methods Simplified.” Attribute this to a circadian clock driven in large part by the hormonal explosion common during the teenage years.

“They have a dip in late afternoon,” says Marks, “but experience a late-day surge that takes them through 9 or 10 o’clock.”

“They open that sail and ride that wind,” she adds. “They really can’t get to sleep. They can accumulate quite a sleep debt.”

Quick math explains the problem: Research on various fronts — including that by the National Sleep Foundation — says teens need 8 1/2 to 9 1/4 hours of sleep every night, the majority of high school students in Triangle area schools and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools need to be to school by 7:30, a post 11 p.m. bedtime and 6 a.m. wake-up yields just seven hours of sleep, leaving a nightly deficit of roughly two hours.

What’s a teen — and a teen’s parent — to do?

1. Determine individual sleep needs. There’s a 45-minute range in that 8 1/2-9 1/4 recommendation — and that range only applies to the “typical” teen. Some need more, some less. Susan Kuczmarski, author of “The Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent’s Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go,” says a good first step in determining a teen’s specific sleep needs is to have them keep a sleep journal.  “Get them to record when they went to bed, when they got up, how much sleep they got and how they felt when they got up,” says Kuczmarski. Basically, if they get up before the alarm goes off, they’ve gotten enough sleep; if they repeatedly slap the snooze button, they need more sack time. Marks suggests conducting this experiment over several days during vacation, when you don’t have to wake by a certain time.

2. Tinker with time. Once you determine how much sleep junior needs, do a back-out plan. If he does best on 9 hours and needs to be up by 6:30 a.m., he needs to get to bed by 9:30 p.m. Part of what’s keeping him up past 11 is that circadian clock, which is set by daylight. Dr. Marks is a fan of fooling Mother Nature by using a light box, a device that replicates the blue light of sunlight (frequently prescribed to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder — SAD — and depression). Turn on the light for 15 to 30 minutes every morning, she says, and the body will adjust accordingly, waking up earlier and thus, tiring out earlier in the evening.

Dr. Marks doesn’t pull punches: “It will be painful initially.” “Put one in the bathroom or where you’ll be getting ready for school,” she advises. The exposure will help shut down the body’s production of melatonin the hormone that regulates sleep and waking cycles.

3. An exercised body is a tired body. Get your teen to exercise after school. “Exercise promotes sleep,” says Kuczmarski. (It also keeps them busy during that crucial period between 2 and 4 p.m., when teens are most likely to get into mischief.) “It relaxes the body.” But don’t let them exercise within an hour of bedtime; exercise stimulates the body by raising the core body temperature.

4. Wind down before bed. No cell phones, no computers, no TV within an hour of bedtime. The light emitted by these devices can be stimulating, says Marks. “We need a  mental wind-down period,” she says. Read a book (textbooks are often effective sedatives), meditate, listen to music (“Something low key,” advises Marks. “You don’t want them listening to gangsters.”)

5. Quantity vs. quality. Staying in bed for nine hours is good only if it’s a quality nine hours — that is, the restive sleep that lets the brain run its gamut of restorative phases. To that end: avoid caffeine (especially the new breed of so-called energy drinks loaded with the stuff), sugar (especially a few hours before bedtime) and drink 16 ounces a day of “tart cherry juice.” “It’s thought to increase melatonin production,” says Marks. (But don’t drink it too close to bedtime, lest you be making a bathroom run in the middle of the night.) Also, keep the bedroom temperature at a sleep-friendly 68-70 degrees.

6. Lobby for the benefits of sleep. Lack of sleep can: lead to inattention and thus, poor grades; affect performance in sports; cause weight gain; contribute to acne and other skin problems; make you grouchy; lead to social ineptitude during an already trying phase of social development); inhibit production of growth hormones (leading one, in the delicate words of Dr. Jacob Tietlebaum, Hawaii-based author of “From Fatigued to Fantastic!” to be a “late bloomer”). Hopefully, say the experts, one of these motivations will take.

7. Cut ‘em some slack on weekends. Yes, mom and dad, your teen can make up a sleep deficit on the weekend — to an extent. “Let your kids get a couple of extra hours of sleep on the weekends,” suggests Kuczmarski. A couple hours, she emphasizes — “not sleeping in until 1 in the afternoon.”

8. It it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Getting enough sleep is all good and well, says Dr. Tietlebaum, but parents need to remember that teens are “adults in training” — they need to figure out what works on their own. Present them with the facts, provide suggestions for what they can do, but let them make make the decisions. “Ask them the question, ‘How’s that working for you?’”

“If they’re getting good grades, if they’re not getting into trouble,” says Dr. Tietlebaum, “leave them alone.”

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