Volume 16 • Issue 38 | February 20 - 26, 2004

Youth doctor’s view

The sleep-deprived generation?

By Dr. Amy Glaser

My sixteen-year-old does not finish his homework until 11:30 at night. At least that’s what he tells me. I wouldn’t know. I’m asleep.

No doubt you’ve noticed that as your child moves into puberty her sleep patterns are shifting: she is staying up later and getting up later. Both psychosocial influences and changes in bio-regulatory patterns contribute to what scientists call a phase delay, that is a tendency for later times for both going to sleep and awakening.

This wouldn’t be a problem if she didn’t have to go to school. But she does.

Parents concerned whether their teenager is getting enough sleep have a legitimate issue. Studies show that most adolescents require 8.5 to 9.25 hours each night to stay healthy and alert. The average teenager falls short.

The typical bedtime for a high schooler is 11pm. At age 13, teens average 7 hours 12 minutes on school nights and by age 19 it drops to 7 hours 4 minutes. Only 15% of adolescents report averaging 8.5 hours or more of sleep each night.

Sleep deprivation can lead to compounding problems such as trouble falling asleep, frequent waking, or poor quality sleep that is not restorative. Teens can become less alert; have impaired short-term memory, poor performance and become subject to mood swings. In the worst scenario, inadequate sleep makes teenagers drowsy behind the wheel.

Recently, the University of Minnesota analyzed how later school start times would accommodate teenage sleep patters. It reported an increase in sleep, better attendance, a greater proportion of kids eating breakfast (previously shown to be associated with better school performance) and greater alertness in the classroom.

You can monitor signs of sleep deprivation in your child. Does he have persistent difficulty waking in the morning? A tendency to rapidly fall asleep during quiet times of the day?

To help alleviate sleep deprivation, keep in mind that you want to help your child maintain a circadian rhythm. Help him keep a consistent schedule. Talk to him about his extracurricular activities and school demands and the need to organize his time.

Sometimes changing the order of activities helps. Studying, reading, or listening to music in the evening can lead to a smoother transition to sleep. In particular, parents should encourage children to reserve 30 minutes before sleep as a wind-down period. Make a good night’s sleep a prerequisite for borrowing the car or any other activity in which drowsiness may present a danger. If excessive homework is the issue, you may want to alert appropriate teachers if you feel the homework load is excessive.

Puberty is a critical time for seeding patterns of behavior that can be useful throughout life. Sleep researchers say that basic sleep needs within people remain the same during life and that individual circadian rhythms are resistant to change.

While establishing healthy sleep patterns is a reasonable goal, the reality is teenagers like to stay up. You don’t want to get into a battle over bedtime. While younger children may balk at being told to go to bed, it’s not an affront to their sense of independence. Teenagers, however, may feel challenged. They are learning to chart their own values and gain control over their lives. Instead of imposing your will, try to outline the principles of adequate sleep and the risks of deprivation. The goal is a mutually acceptable bedtime, particularly on the all-important school nights when there is no chance to compensate from a late night by sleeping in.

Dr. Amy Glaser is in private practice at Soho Adolescents, 430 West Broadway. All inquiries to aglasermd@aol.com


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