Teenagers and Sleep: the real reason why their sleep patterns are different

For households with teenagers, school mornings can be a real pain in the neck. Getting your teenager out of bed is often a daily challenge for many parents.

But is it really their fault? Or are teenagers ‘hard-wired’ to have different sleep patterns than adults?

Why sleep for teenagers is different

Commonly, young people tend to feel sleepy later in the evening. They then make-up the sleep deficit by sleeping-in.

There’s no doubt that addiction to devices plays a part, but there’s a growing body of research which shows that for most teenagers, that’s how their bodies work.

The release of melatonin is different with teenagers. Melatonin is the magic ingredient that sets the pattern for our sleep. This naturally occurring hormone is released around the same time every day as darkness approaches.

For teenagers, melatonin is released later in the evening. This explains why many of them find it hard to go to sleep earlier.  

It also explains why it’s hard for them to get up in the morning. Early morning school or sport timetables simply don’t fit in with their natural sleep patterns.

This can lead to sleep deprivation which has all sorts of negative effects on their health. Their performance at school may also take a hit. They’re likely to be less alert at school and have more trouble concentrating.

How much sleep do teenagers need?

Your teenager could resemble a zombie from their favourite latest Netflix movie if they don’t get 9-10 hours of sleep every night

Not getting enough sleep has nasty consequences.

Researchers have found that a lack of sleep can lead to diabetes, obesity and an increased risk of anxiety and depression. It also interferes with learning and memory.

A good night’s sleep restores every part of your body. For teenagers, who are going through major physiological and emotional changes, sleep is crucial for good physical and mental health.

What can you do to help your teenager get more sleep?

1. Turn the lights off

Exposure to light tends to suppress melatonin production in our bodies.

In the ‘old days’, people tended go to bed when it was dark and rise at daylight. All that changed with artificial light. In the quest for more energy-efficient light bulbs, we might have created even more of a sleep problem. Turns out, LED light bulbs produce more blue light than the old fluorescent bulbs.

Blue light has been shown to suppress melatonin twice as long as green light. The result is we stay awake longer and get less sleep.

Avoiding light in the evening may delay the release of melatonin and trigger an earlier sleep response. Using a red night-light can also help shift the circadian rhythm and suppress melatonin – helping you sleep sooner.

2. Shut down devices and avoid screen time late at night

This is sure to create some tension in many households, but shutting down screens before bedtime is a good way to avoid teenagers losing even more sleep. The blue light emitted by devices like laptops, phones and tablets interferes with hormones that help regulate sleep.

During the day, blue wavelengths of light help to boost attention, reaction time and our mood. Exposure to this type of light in the evening ‘tricks’ our body into thinking it’s still daytime.

Shutting down devices 2-3 hours before bedtime is ideal. In the real world, most teenagers will find this a challenge, so they should close-down devices at least 30 minutes before they plan to sleep.

Making sure that teenagers charge-up their devices in a room other than their bedroom is also a good idea. That way, they’re not tempted to check out social media or continue gaming into the night.

3. Get outdoor time during the day

Exercise is good for all of us. Studies have proven that physical activity helps improve the quality of sleep for people of all ages.  

When teenagers are exposed to lots of bright light during the day, it helps boost their ability to sleep at night. It also has a positive effect on their mood and alertness during daylight.

4. Build-in relaxation time

Life is busy for most teenagers. There’s pressure to perform at school, social pressure to fit in with their peers and increasing expectations from parents and teachers.

Building in a bit of down-time can help teenagers cope better with all these pressures and improve the quality of their sleep.

To get ready for bedtime, teenagers should wind-up their study practice at least 30 minutes before sleep. Listening to relaxing music, reading a book or using one of the many relaxation apps can also make it easier to ease into sleep.

Other tips to help teenagers sleep better are:

  • Avoid drinking caffeinated drinks close to bedtime
  • Stick to a routine – wake-up and go to bed at the same time every day
  • Set aside some ‘problem-solving’ time to avoid lying in bed worrying
  • Keep the room dark, well-ventilated and cool
  • Make sure they have a comfortable mattress and pillow