Is your teen getting enough sleep?

By Lisa Bendall on June 14, 2013
Your teenager yawns through class, naps after school, and practically needs a bullhorn to get out of bed in the morning. Rest assured (no pun intended), the odds are your teen is healthy, just sleep-deprived. Dr. Shirley Blaichman, a pediatrician in Montreal, says she sees fatigue in this age group just about every day in her office. “This is as common with teens as it is with that little infant who just won’t sleep through the night!” she says. In fact, the Canadian Paediatric Society estimates that as many as 40 percent of teenagers spend their days struggling to keep their eyes open.

Although sleepiness is a problem shared by many kids this age, it shouldn’t be dismissed. Tired teenagers have more difficulty concentrating on their school lessons and remembering what they’ve learned. They’re at higher risk for depression. They’re even more likely to be in car accidents. “There doesn’t have to be an underlying disease, but it certainly can have effects on how the teen is functioning,” says Dr. Blaichman.

Teenagers need a lot of shut-eye – nine to 10 hours a night. In fact, sleep requirements increase in this age group, at a time when many busy kids are going to bed later than ever. If your child has an evening soccer game, band practice or part-time job, then comes home to a pile of schoolwork and social media, it can be hours before it’s time to call it a night. There’s also evidence that the circadian clock shifts at puberty, keeping your kid wide awake later. If regular bedtime is 11 p.m. and the alarm rings at 7 a.m., your teen may eventually feel pretty knackered.

Screen time can also keep your teen alert at night. Researchers have found that backlit electronic devices like laptops, smartphones and tablets can disrupt the circadian rhythm and make it tough to fall asleep. Ideally, these gadgets shouldn’t be used within two or three hours of bedtime.

Another factor: Sleeping ’til noon on Saturday and Sunday instead of waking up close to the weekday wake-up time. “The greater the difference there is between the weekday and the weekend, the more likely there will be difficulty falling asleep,” Dr. Blaichman says. The solution? Keep it consistent.

Other ways to improve your teen’s sleep routine include reserving the bedroom for sleeping, instead of gaming or gabbing on the phone, and making sure the room is cool, dark and quiet at night. Remind your child to avoid caffeine after mid-afternoon. That includes colas, energy drinks and chocolatey treats. A calming routine like a warm bath or a good book will help prep your child for sleep.

If your child is tired despite gettting enough sleep, if sleep patterns have changed, or if you’ve noticed other symptoms (see sidebar) see your healthcare provider. The doctor will check for any underlying medical factors that might interfere with feeling well-rested. Even if your kid is completely healthy, a doctor can offer advice for behaviour changes that might help. It’s especially important to have a chat with a healthcare professional before trying over-thecounter sleep remedies such as melatonin.

It’s probably more challenging to increase the amount of time spent in bed. After all, most high schools start early, and teens do have hectic schedules. So how do we get them to put out the light at night? Work together with your teen to map out solutions. Maybe reduce extracurricular activities, or wait until the weekend to catch up on favourite TV shows.

“Have a look at their overall schedule,” says Dr. Blaichman. But don’t cut out all the fun, either. “You don’t want a teen just going to school and doing homework. There has to be a balance.”

When sleepiness is a warning sign

“We don’t want to miss a medical problem, but in the vast majority of teens there isn’t one,” says pediatrician Shirley Blaichman. But don’t ignore these symptoms:

  • Mood or behaviour changes that might be associated with depression, anxiety or substance abuse.
  • Aches and pains, like headaches or stomach cramps.
  • Snoring, which could be a sign of sleep apnea.
  • Night waking, with difficulty falling back to sleep.
  • Loss of appetite or any other signs of illness.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, July 2013.

By Lisa Bendall| June 14, 2013

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