Lack of Sleep is Putting Teenagers’ Health at Risk

[This piece was written by Nathan Graber, MD, MPH, FAAP, with St. Peter’s Pediatrics in Clifton Park, a member of St. Peter’s Health Partners Medical Associates.]

It’s not easy for teens to get a good night’s sleep. Their lives are packed with school work, sports and other extracurricular activities, as well as social media and video games. Adding to that, changes during puberty shift their internal body clock so they can’t fall asleep until later, but they still need to get up early in the morning for school. It’s no wonder, then, that most teens are perpetually sleep-deprived.

Sleep deprivation among teens has reached epidemic proportions, with more than 80 percent of teens getting less than the recommended eight to 10 hours of sleep a night during the school week. The impacts on their health are enormous. Teens who don’t get adequate, regular sleep have reduced academic achievement, poorer sports performance, and are at a significantly increased risk for obesity, depression, suicidal ideation, and automobile crashes.

Sleep deprivation can lead to behaviors and symptoms that resemble attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety, and worsen symptoms in teens with these conditions. A very common effect is daytime sleepiness, particularly during morning classes at school and while doing homework. Teens will often turn to caffeine, and sometimes misuse prescription stimulants, to increase alertness, which can further diminish the quality of their nighttime sleep and delay sleep onset even further.

Although challenging, there are things we can do to help our teens achieve the sleep they need every night. As parents, we should all agree it is our role to set limits, realizing that, even though they don’t necessarily express it openly, our teens appreciate and seek out our support.

Good sleep hygiene starts with a regular bedtime routine with reasonable and consistent bedtimes and wake up times. Keep in mind that teens can’t fall asleep as early as they did when they were younger. It helps to get screens out their bedrooms at night and turn off all devices an hour before bedtime – parents should lead by example! Caffeine and intense exercise should be avoided for at least four hours before lights out.

Finally, evidence demonstrates improvements in all of the health outcomes above by delaying school start times, something parents should discuss with their school districts. If possible, work with your teen to delay the start of their day so they can get some extra sleep. Sleeping in on the weekends should be limited to no more than one hour past the time they regularly get up, to avoid a further shift in their internal clock.

If these measures don’t seem to help, be sure to speak with your child’s pediatrician.

St. Peter’s Pediatrics – Clifton Park, 1 Tallow Wood Drive on the St. Peter’s Medical Campus, offers a complete range of services for children. New patients are welcome; call 518-688-0295 for an appointment.

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