“As a pediatrician, I have this conversation several times per day,” says Ball. “Many people don’t realize teens need more sleep than the average adult.”
Dr. Ball explained that adolescence is a tricky time in terms of sleep habit changes. Puberty transforms the average teen from a morning person to a night owl, and their sleep schedules need to reflect that.
Part of the issue, he says, is that schools have not yet adjusted to reflect this need; 43% of American high schools start before 8 a.m., he notes, but that ideally should be 8:30 a.m. or later. Dr. Ball has advocated for California state legislation that would mandate such a start time among high schools.
On the show, Dr. Ball also shared a few tips to help teens improve their sleep hygiene.
7 ways pediatricians can help parents manage their teen’s sleeping habits:
- Encourage parents to limit screen time after dark
“I’m happy my kids are involved in their culture and keeping in touch with friends,” says Dr. Ball. “But bright light tells your brain it’s noon and not 10 p.m., so there’s no melatonin surge telling your brain it’s time for bed.” Blue light glasses may help, but it’s much safer and healthier to simply shut off the screens and focus on relaxation once the sun goes down.
- Suggest parents develop a “digital curfew”
It is much easier to limit screen time if parents replace that time with something fun. Suggest family meditation or a starting a membership to a meditation app that teens can use on their own, if they prefer. If parents have a young child prone to waking up during the night, encourage them to try guided imagery to teach their child to put themselves back to sleep.
- Help parents start a sleep diary
Sleepfoundation.org has a sleep diary function parents can easily introduce to their kids. It is a quick and simple way to keep track of sleeping habits, see where problems arise and work alongside their child to improve those habits.
- Have parents to work backwards to find the best bedtime
Parents can start by figuring out what time their teen needs to wake up to get to school on time. Work backwards from there to find an appropriate bedtime. Then, keep working backwards to see how to fit in after-school necessities like homework, sports, social time and family time. The key is making bedtime the priority.
- Make sure parents focus on weekend sleep hygiene, too
Sleeping in a little on weekends is fine, says Dr. Ball, but teens should avoid sleeping hours into the day. Helping adolescents develop more consistent sleep hygiene throughout the week and weekend is critical.
- Tell parents to avoid melatonin unless necessary
Sometimes kids with autism spectrum disorder or who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder require the aid of melatonin, but in other cases, says Dr. Ball, it’s best for doctors to use it as a last resort. “If teens have poor sleep hygiene, there’s not enough melatonin in the world to fix that,” he says. “It becomes a crutch, and then you’re treating the symptoms—not the cause.”
- Urge parents to prioritize sleep
Adolescents in competitive schools or programs tend to prioritize just about everything other than sleep, but no amount of studying will prepare a kid to perform their best the way good sleep will. Remind busy and high-achieving kids that sleep is not a luxury but a necessity, and that an extra half hour of studying likely won’t make the difference that eight hours of sleep will.