How pediatricians can help teens get better sleep

Having a teenager in the home can be, for many families, a reminder that there are simply not enough hours in the day. Between school, athletics, after-school commitments, social events and family commitments, many adolescents today feel like they are running on fumes.

While some families accept low sleep as a fact of life for teens, health agencies such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are urging adolescents to prioritize sleep for several reasons.

Why are teenagers so low on sleep, and why is sleep so important to them?

Sleep is a topic CHOC Children’s pediatrician Dr. Kate Williamson encounters daily. She estimates that most of her teenage patients are chronically low on sleep.

Dr. Katherine Williamson, CHOC Children’s pediatrician

She points to two key considerations about adolescent sleep:

  1. Adolescents have a different sleep cycle than all other age groups. Their biological clocks signal them to sleep later at night, which mean they need to wake up later the next morning. An alarm set for 5:45 a.m. can feel like the middle of the night to an adolescent body.
  2. Adolescent sleep deprivation contributes to obesity, depression, increasing rates of suicide and declining academic performance, among many other consequences. At a time when academic pressures could not be higher, it’s a dangerous combo.

Williamson is not alone in viewing poor sleep hygiene as a public health crisis. The AAP points to low sleep as a contributor to physical and mental health problems in teens, calls for later school start times and suggests teens sleep eight to 10 hours per day.

The recently signed Senate Bill 328 will require most middle schools to start at 8 a.m. or later, and high schools at 8:30 a.m. or later, beginning July 2022. But legislation is the first step, Williamson says, in a conversation that needs to include parents, educators, health officials and many others.

How can pediatricians help?

For many families, more sleep can be low on a growing priority list—especially when barriers like parent work schedules or differences in socioeconomic status can make changing the routine feel impossible.

This is where pediatricians can step in to help families understand that sleep needs to be the priority for their teens.

Here are some steps pediatricians can take to help teens adopt better sleeping habits:

  1. Start the conversation. Make a point to ask adolescent patients about their sleeping habits and discuss how they could improve.
  2. Talk to patients and parents about the research, including possible consequences of chronic sleep deprivation.
  3. Point out any symptoms you can spot already, such as stress, moodiness or depression.
  4. Urge families to adopt a new sleep routine, and point out that the benefits will outweigh the logistical challenges.
  5. Encourage parents to talk about sleep hygiene with school officials and their workplace/s. Healthier adolescent sleep requires collaboration both within the family and among the wider community.

“Sleep should be addressed by all pediatricians to all teenagers,” Williamson says. “We need to assure families that there is more that goes into this conversation than a new law. It’s about widespread mental health among California’s youth.”

Read more about kids and sleep on choc.org.