Mary Sweeney
January 21, 2021
Mary Sweeney, RN, BSN, CEN, ONN-CG, is an oncology nurse navigator and medical writer. Before working in nurse navigation and patient education, Mary was an emergency nurse at a level 1 trauma center, followed by active duty time as an officer in the Navy Nurse Corps. In the military, she worked in several areas including emergency/trauma, post-anesthesia, and deployment medicine. In her career, she has picked up on the important value sleep plays to health both in and outside of the military.

The Sleep Needs of Teenagers

There’s no denying that sleep is important, no matter how old you are. Over the course of our life span, sleep needs will vary according to age. However, the underlying concept remains the same: we need to sleep.

The teenage years can be full of stress, anxiety, and change – all of which can affect sleep quality. The average teenager needs more sleep than a young child – approximately 9-9 ½ hours of sleep per night. However, a startling 92% of American teenagers are somewhat sleep deprived. Is your teenager one of them? If so, this guide will be a wealth of information to get your teen on the right track to better sleep habits.

Why Is Sleep Important?

Sleep is a vital process that keeps our bodies functioning at optimal levels. In order to understand how sleep deprivation can affect the body, we first need to understand what our body does during sleep. A normal sleep cycle lasts about 90 minutes and can be broken down into two different types: Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM (NREM) sleep. Within those two different types, there are 4 stages of sleep – here’s a breakdown:

Stage 1: This first stage of NREM sleep is a light sleep, lasting only a few minutes or so. Here, your body is preparing to fall into a deeper sleep, your eye movements slow down, and your brain begins producing alpha and theta waves. During this stage, you can be awoken easily since you’re only lightly sleeping.

Stage 2: During this NREM stage, you’re still lightly sleeping but your heart rate slows down, your muscles relax significantly, and your body temperature decreases slightly. Eye movements will slow down during this stage, and your brain waves slow down with occasional increases in activity.

Stage 3: This NREM stage is restorative sleep, the kind that makes you feel refreshed. If someone were to wake you up during this stage, you would likely feel disoriented for a few minutes before realizing your surroundings. Our eye movements slow down or stop, and it’s very difficult to wake us up. This stage is an important one – it’s where your body starts repairing muscle, strengthening your immune system, and other vital processes. It’s also during this stage that growth hormones are released, which are essential for muscle development and overall growth and development.

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep: During REM sleep, our eye movements increase dramatically, as the name suggests. REM sleep is the stage where you dream the most, and it’s thought that the eye movements are related to the dreaming that you’re doing. During this stage, most of your muscles are in a paralyzed state, to keep you from acting out your dreams. Don’t worry though, the important muscles like your heart and diaphragm aren’t paralyzed and are working like they’re supposed to! REM sleep gives your brain the energy it needs to keep you alert during the day, which makes it an ultra-important component to the sleep cycle.

While the average sleep cycle lasts 90 minutes, you will go through several cycles of varying lengths during one night. During your first few sleep cycles, you’ll go through longer cycles of NREM sleep, followed by a few cycles of REM sleep. As if that doesn’t complicate things enough, there has been research that shows that the time of day can affect what type of sleep you get. For example, it is thought that most NREM sleep happens between the hours of 11pm and 3am, and REM sleep more often happens between 3am and 7am (source).

Sleep Deprivation

So, what happens when your teen doesn’t get enough sleep? Sleep deprivation in teens is all too common in the United States, with approximately 8% of teens getting the recommended amount of sleep every night. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), sleep-deprived teenagers are more likely to suffer from physical and mental health problems, be involved in motor vehicle accidents, and have declining academic performance. Common issues related to sleep deprivation in teenagers include:

  • Obesity. During sleep cycles, your brain is building and rebuilding connections with the rest of your body. When the body is sleep deprived, the brain’s ability to signal when you feel full after eating may be reduced, therefore causing gradual weight gain.
  • Memory or concentration issues. The amount of sleep that you get is directly correlated with your ability to focus and remember things, both long and short-term. Remember how REM sleep gives your brain the energy that it needs for optimal daytime function? If you take away a REM cycle or two, you are reducing your brain’s ability to focus and recall important things. This is especially important for your teenager, who is expected to pay attention in school and retain what they’re being taught.
  • Depression and/or anxiety. Recent studies have shown that teenagers have an increased risk of suffering from mental health issues if they are sleep deprived, the most common being anxiety disorders and depression. Sleep has a major effect on mood, which can cause or exacerbate these conditions. Sleep deprived teens are three times as likely to attempt suicide, which is a startlingly high figure.
  • High blood pressure. Sleep deprivation can cause blood pressure to rise, giving your teenager a higher risk for premature cardiovascular disease. During the stages of NREM sleep, the body relaxes and blood pressure decreases, as does the heart rate. This sets the stage for restorative, refreshing sleep that leaves us feeling energized in the morning. Without that opportunity to lower blood pressure during the night, the body is in a state of increased stress with no opportunity for rest.
  • Diabetes. Without an adequate amount of sleep, less insulin is produced by the body and blood sugar levels may remain elevated. Over time, this can dramatically increase the risk for type 2 diabetes.
  • Weakened immune system. Stage 3 of NREM sleep helps strengthen our immune systems. Without it, we become more susceptible to viruses like influenza or the common cold. You may find that you are sick more often when you are chronically sleep deprived. In teenagers, that can mean missed school days and homework assignments, leading to declining academic performance.
  • Motor vehicle accidents. Teenagers suffering from sleep deprivation, many of whom are new and inexperienced drivers, are much more likely to be involved in car accidents. In a study conducted in Virginia Beach in 2008, the crash rate for 16 to 18-year-olds whose first class of the day was at 7:30am was 40% higher than that of an adjacent school system, whose first class began at 8:40am.

It’s startling to hear that these seemingly “adult” issues can pop up in teenage years, making it even more important to emphasize the importance of a good night’s sleep to your teenager. Good sleep habits developed during these years may head off some common chronic diseases and set them down the path to healthier living.

Sleep and Your Student

Circadian rhythms (the body’s internal clock) may be different in teenagers, with growth and puberty hormones setting the clocks back 1-2 hours behind those of adults and younger children. Because of this shift, teenagers may find it difficult to fall asleep before 11pm. With many teens facing school start times of 7:30am or perhaps earlier, this can quickly become an issue.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has published a position paper in favor of later school start times to accommodate these inevitable biological changes. With later start times, teens would be able to wake up when their body says they’re supposed to, making them less likely to fall asleep in class, be involved in motor vehicle accidents, and will help achieve better grades and higher standardized test scores. If teens are getting more sleep, they are more alert. When they’re more alert, they are able to complete homework and other tasks in less time than if they are sleep deprived and less alert. Makes sense, right?

Tips to Help Your Teen Sleep Better

  • Set limits for electronics. Just like adults, teen’s sleep can be affected by the blue light emitted from electronic devices. If your teen is allowed to use electronic devices, be sure to set limits on their use during evening hours. Consider having your teen leave their device in an area of the house that’s not their bedroom. That will discourage them from reaching for it after they’ve shut off the lights.
  • Encourage an afternoon nap. A small 45-minute nap after school can give your teen the energy they need to focus on homework and other after-school activities. However, be sure that the nap doesn’t last longer than that – it may interfere with falling asleep later that night.
  • Evaluate after-school activities. It’s common for teens to have academic and sports commitments before and after school, often on more than one team or club. If your teen is struggling to keep up with academic performance, it may be time to review the number of activities he or she is participating in. Often, it’s necessary to pare down the activities so your teen can find time to unwind and relax.
  • Keep an open line of communication. Your teen needs to know that you understand the sleep issues that he or she is having, and that you are there to support them and guide them down the right path. Talk to your teen about how they’re feeling and ask them if they’re struggling – they may identify areas where they need help navigating these changes and managing their time.
  • Steer clear of medications. Sleep medications can be effective in getting a full night’s sleep, but they are a quick solution – not a fix for an underlying sleep issue. The exception here would be melatonin, since it’s a naturally occurring substance in the body. Melatonin is produced when it’s dark and signals your body that it’s time to go to sleep. Taking a melatonin supplement can help your body realize that it’s time for sleep and can help reset your circadian rhythm, which may be helpful for teens who cannot physically fall asleep until later evening hours.

Sleep deprivation in teenagers is a huge problem in today’s world, but there are ways to combat it. Talk to your teenager about the importance of sleep in your life and how you feel when your sleep quality is optimal. You can be their sleep role model! Setting the example for your teenager may be what helps them change their habits and sets them up for a lifetime of optimal sleep.

References And Continued Reading

Mary Sweeney
January 21, 2021
Mary Sweeney, RN, BSN, CEN, ONN-CG, is an oncology nurse navigator and medical writer. Before working in nurse navigation and patient education, Mary was an emergency nurse at a level 1 trauma center, followed by active duty time as an officer in the Navy Nurse Corps. In the military, she worked in several areas including emergency/trauma, post-anesthesia, and deployment medicine. In her career, she has picked up on the important value sleep plays to health both in and outside of the military.