How much sleep do teenagers really need?
A regular topic of conversation among parents of young children is whether they’re getting enough sleep. But how much do older kids need and what can you do to encourage good sleep habits among teens?
Large numbers of Australian children and adolescents are sleeping fewer hours than the recommended minimum, which is having an impact on their growth, learning and development.
Dr Chris Seton, paediatric and adolescent sleep specialist at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, says quality sleep is fundamental to good mental health. Adolescents who aren’t getting enough sleep are more likely to show symptoms of anxiety and depression, have low self-esteem and are less likely to rate themselves as ‘happy’.
Sleep guidelines recommend teenagers aged 14–17 years get 8–10 hours of sleep a night. “The teenage years are the only time when the need for sleep doesn’t decrease as you get older,” says Dr Seton. “Whether your teen is 12 or 18 years old, they’ll need an average of nine hours’ sleep each night.”
What are the signs of teen sleep deprivation?
“Most parents want to know if their moody, grumpy teenager is sleep deprived or if it’s just genetic,” says Dr Seton. He suggests your teen may have a sleep problem if they’re very difficult to wake on school mornings, are crankier and more tired in the mornings than at bedtime and have big sleep-ins on the weekend.
Other signs of sleep deprivation include:
- difficulty concentrating
- being slow to get going in the morning
- low impulse control.
What causes sleep issues?
As your teen grows, they may want to change their sleep routine, but hormones can also play a part. Teens start to secrete melatonin, a hormone that regulates the body’s sleep-wake cycle, later at night than they did in earlier childhood, which affects their circadian rhythms. Also, as their brains mature during puberty, they can stay awake for longer.
More serious reasons teens aren’t getting enough sleep include disorders such as sleep apnoea, which occurs when a person’s throat is partly or completely blocked during sleep, or restless leg syndrome, a condition of the nervous system where you have the urge to move your legs to relieve unpleasant sensations. Speak to your GP if you think your teen may be experiencing these issues.
Lifestyle factors also play a role in a teenager’s ability to get enough sleep, and they include:
- spending too much time on digital devices (recommended screen time in Australia is less than two hours for children 5–17 years)
- after- and before-school activities
- doing schoolwork late into the night
- light exposure from television, smartphones or computers
- high-caffeine intake (coffee or energy drinks)
Dr Seton acknowledges the multiple reasons why teenagers can experience sleep deprivation but says too much screen time is a major factor. “The portability and availability of phones, laptops and tablets means many teens are using these devices on their beds. This trains their brain to associate their bed with fun and excitement, rather than sleep time,” he says. The blue light emitted from screens may impact a teen’s ability to switch off at bed time.
Encouraging good sleep habits
Good-quality sleep habits aren't about banning screens altogether, says Dr Seton. “You can’t prohibit devices, but you do need a healthy balance,” he explains. “Part of the treatment I offer is certainly to limit screens, but that’s not an immediate fix.”
Parents can set healthy sleep habits by:
Establishing sleep patterns early
As children move from lower to upper high school their sleep requirements don’t change, but often they’ll do more homework, gain more independence and spend more time on social media, leaving less time for sleep,” says Dr Seton. “Set sleep expectations and patterns early – it’s much easier to start when they’re 13 years old than at 16 or 17.”
Have a wind-down routine
Turn off screens one hour before bedtime. “This allows the brain and body time to get ready for sleep,” explains Dr Seton. Teens can spend this hour doing other activities like reading, having a warm bath or practising meditation.
Bring bedtime earlier – slowly
Dr Seton suggests a longer-term approach. “If kids are going to sleep at 1am you can’t suddenly tell them to go to bed at 10.30pm because they’ll lie awake and become anxious, frustrated and annoyed. Bring bedtime earlier by five or 10 minutes each night,” he says.
Talk to your teen about ways they think they can get their minimum number of hours of sleep and draw up an agreement.
Set a good example
Parents are powerful role models and play a big part in showing what good sleep hygiene looks like. Do this by removing devices from your own bedroom overnight and placing value on a good night’s sleep.
Need more help or advice about teen sleep?
If you have concerns about your teenager’s sleep, you can get professional help from a counsellor, your GP or a psychologist specialising in sleep issues.
And don’t forget to use these trusted online resources about teen sleep:
Words by Lindy Alexander
First published March 2020
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