How to Help Your Teenager Get Enough Sleep

In the last 100 years there has been over 32 national sets of guidelines as to how much sleep we need. The scientific evidence about exactly how much sleep need is still being debated, and it certainly varies quite a bit between people.  However, almost all sleep experts recommend that teenagers need between 7.5 and 9 hours of sleep each night.

How do you know if your teenager is getting enough sleep?  The best guide is sleepiness.  If teens are sleepy in the morning and have trouble waking up and feel sleepy during the day, this is a good indication that they are sleep deprived.  To be honest, most teenagers I meet are sleep deprived - and they know it and feel it on a daily basis.

The effects of sleep deprivation have been well documented.  Teenagers who are sleep deprived are significantly more likely to:

  • Feel depressed and anxious, over-react to minor issues, feel irritable and angry
  • Have trouble remembering information and motivating themselves to do difficult tasks
  • Have difficulty understanding ideas and concepts
  • Have slower reaction times (and therefore, more likely to be in a car accident if driving)
  • Are more likely to get minor illnesses, and take longer to recover from these illnesses.     
  • Can start to have slurred speech and muscle tremors, and high blood pressure   

There are a few reasons teenagers do not get enough sleep. First, some teenagers simply do not want to go to bed any earlier, because of the things they want to do, or the things they have to get done. (“But I’m not tired. Everyone stays up until midnight in my class. I’ve got too much to do. I study best late at night”).   Late at night is often a precious "free" time of day for young people - who wants to give that up?  It's a time of day when there is often a lot of teen socialising.  If they miss out on that, they can feel left out of the loop the next day at school.

Second, some teenagers would actually like to sleep more but find they can’t get to sleep early enough in the evening to get nine hours in before they have to get up for school the next morning. (“I’ve been lying in bed awake for 2 hours!”).   They struggle because they don't feel sleepy, and can't drop off to sleep.

Some teenagers struggle with both of these kinds of sleeping problems. In fact teenagers who are reluctant to go to bed are sometimes reluctant because they know they wil have trouble getting to sleep anyway.

Let’s consider these two issues separately:

1. Teenagers who don’t want to try to get to sleep earlier

It is important to ask young people, in detail, why exactly they don’t want to get to bed any earlier. Questions like: “what is the best thing about being up later on your own at night”, “what is unpleasant about having to go to bed at 10pm?”, “what makes it hard to finish everything so that you can go to bed earlier” – all asked in a genuinely interested, non-agenda driven way, can help identify the factors that are involved the lack of sleep. Once we have this information, we might be able to brainstorm ways of young people still achieving what is important to them whilst still getting extra sleep. It is also important for young people to have clear information about why they should sacrifice their precious leisure time for sleep – it may help to direct them to internet sites which document the science behind sleep deprivation. Two such sites which might be helpful are below:

Finally, if teenagers are resistant it is worth encouraging them even to get 15 minutes extra of sleep per day. If they can organise their evening so that they can get to bed even just 15 minutes earlier, then over time this will have a beneficial effect.

2. Teenagers who can’t get to sleep (insomnia)

For some students, it is not that they want to stay up all night, but that they can’t get to sleep. Unfortunately, sleeping problems are not unusual in teenagers. A cycle is often set up: they can't get to sleep until late, then are very sleepy the next day and so have a nap in the afternoon - which then affects their ability to get to sleep that night.  The cycle continues.

For teens who can't get to sleep, the following ideas can be helpful:

  1. Avoiding caffeine at least four hours before bed,  including cokes, energy drinks and coffees.
  2. Avoiding hot baths or showers before bed. 
  3. Avoiding exercise one hour before bed, but making sure exercise does happen at other times during the day.
  4. Avoiding the internet/mobile phone screens for 30 mins before bed.  These devices emit light which our brain interprets as it being day.  It is very difficult to become sleepy immediately after looking at a screen.
  5. Avoiding all naps during the day.  This includes even 10 minutes after school.  Any sleep during the day can interfere with our ability to get to sleep at night.  
  6. Having a cup of milk before bed.
  7. Avoiding studying or using computers on the bed - this can signal to the brain that the bed is a "wake zone", which can make it harder to get to sleep on the bed at other times.
  8.  Getting up at approximately the same time every morning, 7 days a week, regardless of how much sleep was obtained during the night. This will help teens acquire a consistent sleep rhythm. 
  9. First thing in the morning, being around as much bright light as possible – preferably sun light, or bright fluorescent light.  This "resets" the body clock.
  10. First thing in the morning, try to be as active as possible.  Again this resets the body clock and will help teens get to sleep in the night time.

If you would like more information on this topic and other issues for teens through their schooling, you might like to consider purchasing The Years that Count from this website.  This book is for parents and teachers about how to help teens motivate themselves, manage stress, friendship dramas and other issues through senior school.  For more info or to purchase, click here

If you are interested in our counselling services for teens and parents, click here on counselling.