Even though countless experts, including the American Association of Pediatrics, say that high schools should not start so ding-dang early in the morning, many still do. That means teens are commonly sleep-deprived, with 70% getting less than the recommended amount of sleep.
It’s not just a matter of time management, but of the way teenage brains work, explains Horacio de la Iglesia, who studies sleep in teens and explained the biology behind teen sleep deprivation in The Conversation. It takes a teenager more hours of awake time than an adult before they start to feel sleepy. Their circadian rhythms also seem to run more slowly, so that after that long day, they need a long night of sleep. They’ll outgrow this phase of development eventually, but high school is approximately when their morning sleep needs are the greatest.
So what can we do about it? Well, a change to school start times would still be one of the best tools we have. De la Iglesia’s team has found that delaying the start of school by about an hour resulted in teens getting 34 minutes more sleep, on average.
But if school times are already set for the year, our next best bet is using biological cues to help retrain kids’ brains so that getting up early doesn’t feel so early. We have some tips here on explaining the situation to your teen and rejiggering family routines to make it easier to get to bed early. Here are some of the things that will help to reset their clocks:
Get morning light
Light in the early morning helps to set our body’s clock. If the sun is up when your kid is getting ready for school, opening curtains is great, as are outdoor activities like eating breakfast on the patio or walking to school.
But the short days of winter, plus the daylight saving time change, will throw a wrench in that plan for many of us. Bright indoor lights probably help a bit; blue light can be especially helpful. I’m not saying your kid should be watching a lot of TV or scrolling their phone all morning, but it’s probably better in the morning than evening. An alarm clock that shines light as it wakes them up may also be a good investment.
Avoid evening light
Our bodies produce melatonin in response to darkness, which helps us get sleeping at nighttime. Light in the evening, especially from blue sources like screens, can disrupt that process. So this is all the more reason to avoid screen time just before bed.
Eat meals during the daytime
Besides light, the next biggest hint our bodies get about the time of day is when we eat. It’s easiest to stick to a schedule if we’re eating during daylight hours, so try to time dinnertime appropriately. If kids have activities like sports practices in the evening, it may help to eat a small dinner before practice so that they only need a bit of a snack afterward—instead of delaying dinner and chowing down right before bed.
Use caffeine carefully
As a teen, I remember chugging caffeinated soda (my favorite being Mountain Dew) just to get through those early mornings. And afternoons. And—well, you get the idea. Caffeine takes a long time to break down in our bodies, so if you have an energy drink in the late afternoon, a lot of that caffeine will still be in your system later that evening. Talk to your teen about keeping caffeine for mornings only. Feeling sleepy late in the day is a good thing, after all.
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