Why teenagers need sleep
Your teenage child needs sleep to:
- maintain a healthy body
- keep her immune system working well
- boost her energy levels, learning and concentration
- store things in her long-term memory.
Lack of sleep can make it harder for your child to behave well, regulate emotions, pay attention and do well at school, and get along with others.
How much sleep do teenagers need?
Teenagers need 8-10 hours of sleep each night. This means teenagers still need more sleep than adults to be at their best during the day.
And it’s not just about how much sleep teenagers get. It’s also about how well they sleep, and how much deep sleep they get. Deep sleep is the most restful phase of sleep.
It’s very common for children in the early teen years to begin to want to go to bed later at night and get up later in the morning. This is because they start to secrete melatonin later at night than they did in earlier childhood, which affects their circadian rhythm. Also, as their brains mature during puberty, children can stay awake for longer.
Helping teenagers sleep better
You can help your teenage child get the good-quality sleep he needs by looking at what he does during the day, as well as at night. In particular, your child needs to eat regular, healthy meals, enjoy positive social relationships, and get regular physical activity.
Good daytime habits can help your child avoid sleep problems, especially as she gets towards the later teen years. These habits can also help your child sort out any sleep problems that come up.
- Encourage your child to go to bed and get up around the same time every day. Keep wake-up times on school days and weekends to within two hours of each other. This can help get your child’s body clock into a regular rhythm and keep it there.
- Encourage your child to get out of bed when he wakes up, rather than trying to go back to sleep.
- Allow plenty of time (for example, 40 minutes) for your child to wind down before bed. Good wind-down activities are warm baths, warm milk drinks, writing in a journal, reading a book or magazine, and listening to quiet music.
- Encourage your child to keep daytime naps to no more 20 minutes and make sure the nap is in the early afternoon. Longer and later naps can make it harder to get to sleep at night.
Your child’s sleep environment
- Turn off loud music, mobile phones, computer screens and TV at least one hour before bedtime. Late-night phone calls, text messages and social media use can mean broken sleep, so encourage your child to connect with friends during the day instead.
- Check your child’s sleep space. A quiet, dimly lit space is important for good sleep.
- Ensure your child feels safe at night. Praise and reward any signs of bravery if your child is fearful. Avoid scary TV shows, movies, computer games or books. Some children with major bedtime fears sleep better with a night light or a personal alarm under their pillow.
- If your child is ‘clock watching’, encourage her to turn her clock around or move it to where she can’t see it.
- If your child has trouble going to sleep sometimes, suggest he gets up and does something relaxing like reading. When he feels tired, he can go back to bed.
Good health and nutrition
- Make sure your child has a satisfying evening meal at a reasonable time. Feeling hungry or too full before bed might make her feel alert or uncomfortable. This can make it harder to get to sleep.
- Encourage your child to get as much natural light as possible during the day, especially in the morning. This will help his body produce melatonin at the right times in his sleep cycle.
- Make sure your child has a healthy breakfast. Tired adolescents are less likely to eat, but even a light breakfast helps to kick-start the body clock. This helps the body feel ready for sleep at the right time at night.
- Encourage your child to avoid caffeine (in energy drinks, coffee, tea, chocolate and cola) – especially in the late afternoon and evening.
- Encourage your child to do some physical activity during the day, but not too late at night. Extra stimulation and body heat can make it harder to get to sleep.
Worries and anxieties
- If your child has worries that keep her awake at night, try talking about them together during the day. You could work together on a problem-solving approach to worries.
- Encourage your child to write anxious thoughts in a journal, which might help him to clear his head. He can think about solutions the next day.
Signs of teenage sleep problems
Your teenage child might have sleep problems or be suffering from a lack of sleep if she:
- takes a long time to get to sleep
- repeatedly wakes throughout the night and doesn’t go back to sleep
- struggles to wake or refuses to get out of bed in the morning
- has very irregular sleep patterns from day to day
- sleepwalks or gets up and eats during the night while asleep
- has frequent nightmares or sleep terrors.
If your child has sleep problems, you might also notice signs in the daytime. For example, your child might:
- have difficulty getting up for school
- lack energy or constantly feel tired
- nap for long periods during the day or fall asleep at school
- struggle to concentrate or remember information.
A change in your child’s sleep behaviour – like going to bed later than you’d like – isn’t necessarily a sleep problem. And the signs above are most likely to be signs of a temporary problem than of a diagnosable sleep disorder.
Many temporary sleep problems can be sorted out by focusing on daytime habits that promote good sleep.
Working with your child on sleep problems
If your child has sleep problems, he’ll probably need to try new lifestyle and sleep patterns for many weeks until you see a real difference.
Also, your child needs to be involved in solving her own sleep issues. Her input into strategies she thinks will work is really important.
You can get your child’s input by asking questions about what makes it harder for him to get to sleep, or what keeps him awake. Then he might be able to choose a daytime habit that he thinks will help. For example, if he just doesn’t feel tired, he might focus on doing more physical activity each afternoon.
If the strategies above haven’t helped and you’re concerned about your child’s sleep, see a GP, school counsellor or psychologist. If necessary, these professionals can refer you to a specialist who can assess your child and tailor strategies to your child’s needs.
It’s always best to seek professional medical advice about your child’s individual sleeping behaviour, rather than using over-the-counter sleep medicines.
Sleep and your child’s mental health and wellbeing
Your child needs plenty of good-quality sleep for good mental health and wellbeing.
Mental health and sleep are closely connected. Being tired all the time can contribute to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. But a mental illness like depression or anxiety might also lead to sleep problems.
Also, sleep problems can be a sign of mental health problems. It’s a good idea to talk with your child and seek professional advice if your child shows the following signs for more than two weeks:
- difficulty falling asleep
- trouble getting up
- unusual tiredness during the day
- desire to sleep very late in the day.