Simple tips to get teens sleeping better

RACHEL DOHERTY

Social worker, teacher and the founder of Tweens2teen

Do you know a teenager that is like a rock to get moving in the morning and a moody beast in the afternoon?

Perhaps you’ve noticed that they aren’t doing as well at school lately? Or do they spend all weekend sleeping?

These are classic signs that a young person isn’t getting enough sleep.

“Sleep is that golden chain that ties our health and our bodies together.”

THOMAS DEKKER

How to help teenagers develop better sleep habits.

Research shows that teenagers need an average of nine hours sleep every night. Here in Australia, the University of Adelaide found that over 70 percent of our teens aren’t. In the United States, a team at Stanford University found that the average teenager gets under 7 hours. While in Korea, it’s less than 5 hours each night.

It’s a biological fact that the sleep needs of teenagers are different to other life stages.

As they mature, teenagers often struggle to fall asleep before 11pm. This is due to their body processing all those hormones puberty brings.

Using screens late into the night for study or gaming can also restrict the release of melatonin. This is a hormone that the body starts producing after the sun goes down to help put it to sleep.

How too little sleep impacts on teens

Not getting enough sleep can affect how young people cope with life.

It can make them tired during the day and affect their concentration. Too little sleep can also cause their mood to drop and make them grumpier than usual.

Sleep patterns change during puberty while their bodies are changing. It’s not helped by teenagers getting busier with school and social activities.

Too little sleep can lead to anxiety, depression, or even suicidal thoughts.

Miranda’s tale

Miranda is in Year 12 and is hoping to get high enough grades to get into Engineering at university next year. She has been staying up until 12.30pm studying to try and stay on top of her work.

Her mum has noticed that she has to wake Miranda in the morning because she sleeps through her alarm. Miranda’s  also irritable when she does get up.

She’s often too tired to eat breakfast and refuses to eat dinner with the family; choosing to do her homework instead.

In the last week of term, Miranda burst into tears, saying she didn’t think she could do it anymore.

Miranda’s mum decided it was time to see their doctor and get some help. The doctor told Miranda that she was sleep-deprived and was actually carrying a sleep debt.

Miranda and her mum learned that this means that when we miss out on sleep one night it gets carried over to the next. When we do that day after day, the impact keeps accumulating.

After a long talk, Miranda agreed to get some counselling. She feels this is going to help her find a better balance between her school work and her body’s needs. She’s also planning to establish some better sleep habits.

The doctor also wrote Miranda a medical certificate for three days. Miranda was told she needs to be in bed by 10pm for each of those nights and let her body wake her up each morning. This was all about clearning that sleep debt.

Over time, Miranda learned to prioritise her study so that she was more effective in the time she had. She also made room for exercise and eating dinner with her family.

To Miranda’s surprise, she found that her grades improved and she could concentrate better in class.

“Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.” – William Blake

How teens can get better sleep

The tween years are important years in setting down good sleep habits. This is a time when parents can still be in charge of bedtime, so don’t give up this ground!

Regardless of how old teenagers are, here’s ten tips to improve the quality of their sleep and restore balance:

1. Maintain a regular pattern of sleep across the week

Teenagers can tend to stay up much later and sleep in more on the weekends, which plays havoc with their body clock.

Once in a while having a late night or a sleepin isn’t a big deal. But encourage them to head to bed within two hours of their usual bedtime.

2. Establish good “end of day” routines

Part of what helps us all sleep better is the routines we follow in preparing for bed. If you have set steps you go through, you’re more likely to fall asleep quicker and have a better rest.

Look for ways to slow life down an hour or so before bed by putting away the study books and turning the screen off. Dim the lights, have a shower, put pajamas on, clean the teeth…

Routines tell our body what’s coming next.

3. Deal with things that trigger poor sleep

Some people are more sensitive to stimulants than others, so avoiding caffeine and high sugar drinks in the last four hours of the day can help people get to sleep when they do go to bed.

Make sure they turn off computers and game consoles well before their bedtime also.

4. Create some white noise

Sensitivity to sound changes can make it difficult for some people to go and stay asleep. Having a constant sound, or “white noise” can help smooth out these sound changes. You can use a fan, air-conditioner or download an app to create the perfect sleep frequency

5. Get up if sleep is proving elusive

If your teen isn’t asleep within 20 or 30 minutes of going to bed, they should get up, have a sip of water and sit somewhere quiet and dark for a while. Once they start to feel a bit sleepy, or another 30 minutes has passed, get them to try to go to sleep in their bed again.

6. Help them prioritise

The competing demands of school, work and social lives can mean that teenagers are “burning the candle at both ends”. With their limited life experience, teens might need help to work out what needs doing now and what can wait.

7. Focus on their whole health

The tween and teen years are when they are most at risk to establishing poor habits. Help them to be mindful of the choices they make in what they eat and how much exercise they get.

8. Make bed a place just for sleeping

Create zones within your house or their room for different activities, like watching television, using the computer and studying.

Keep the bed just for sleeping, as this will help their body to connect lying down with going to sleep. This isn’t always easy as they get older and make their own choices though!

9. Make sure their bed is comfortable and inviting

We can often overlook how old a bed is and what impact this has on the quality of sleep an adult-sized body has.

Is your teenager still in their first big bed? Are they sleeping on a comfortable mattress? Could you buy some new sheets to give their room an update?

10. Get help early

If you have a teenager who you think needs some help getting their sleep back on track, get them to talk to their doctor as a starting point. Talking to the school counsellor can also be good place to start.

The sleep habits kids lay down in their teenage years can be hard to overturn when they get older. So don’t be afraid to put your foot down if your teens and tweens are breaking the rules.

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