If you have an adolescent or teen, you know how hard it can be to wake them up in the morning to get ready for school. Getting a young person out of bed before noon often feels like a form of punishment—for the kids, definitely, but moreso for the parents who are tasked with the thankless job of being backup alarm clocks.
When you’re dealing with your teen’s constant slapping of the “snooze button,” morning complaints about being tired, and occasional lateness for school, it may help you to know that this behavior isn’t entirely their fault. There are scientific, biological reasons why tweens and teens have trouble waking up in the morning.
These reasons are part of a nationwide push to acknowledge that a 6:00 or 7:00 a.m. wakeup time may not be realistic for young people. Start School Later, an advocacy group pushing for later school start times, is hopeful that by delaying the initial “late bell” for school, adolescents and teens can catch up on the sleep they need—and stop suffering with the effects of sleep deprivation when they’re meant to be alert and learning.
Why Are Kids So Tired in the Morning?
Why is it that adolescents and teens struggle with those early morning awakenings? Poor sleep hygiene (staying up too late doing homework, drinking caffeine or energy drinks, using cell phones or computers before bed, etc.) may have something to do with it, but biological factors play even bigger roles. Teen bodies and brains are still developing, going through specific changes that affect when and how they sleep.
These changes may include:
- Delayed Sleep Phase. When many kids become teens, their sleep phases (circadian rhythms of sleepiness and alertness) shift; they become sleepy later in the evening, around midnight. This delayed bedtime necessitates a later wake time if they’re to get the full night’s sleep they need. Delayed sleep phase isn’t a cause for panic; it’s a normal, natural physiological change that affects many teenagers (15% or more). As teens enter their twenties the rhythms will often shift again, toward an earlier bedtime.
- Growing Pains. Soreness and pain can lead teens to wake up in the night and experience restlessness that may rob them of good quality sleep. Growing pains affect both girls and boys, but growing (and the subsequent pains) tends to affect boys for a greater number of years.
- Hormonal changes. Hormones and the endocrine system regulate sleep. In teenagers, hormones are in flux, which can affect the sleep cycle and (particularly for girls, whose menstrual cycles may influence hormone levels). For example, in one study, researchers found that the sleep hormone melatonin was not released in teens until 1:00 a.m.—meaning the teens did not feel sleepy until the wee hours of the morning.
Teen bodies are simply out of step with how our school systems are currently structured. Ideally, teenagers would be allowed to go to bed when they’re sleepy (1:00 a.m.) and wake up about 9 hours later, at 10:00 a.m.
Why Does Teen Sleepiness Matter? (The Importance of Sleep)
In the United States, school starts nationwide at an average of 8:00 a.m. (Though some schools start asearly as 7:00.) This early start time means that teens who can’t fall asleep until midnight or 1:00 a.m. are setting alarms to wake up as early as 5:00 or 6:00, getting just 4-6 hours of sleep when their bodies need 8.5 to 9.5 hours or more. Students start the day at a disadvantage, with a sleep deficit that robs them of health and alertness.
Also, in the winter, days are shorter—meaning teens are often waking up, driving, taking the bus, or walking to school in complete darkness. This seasonal change may contribute to their already existing sleep phase delay syndrome. (To put it simply: without sunlight, their bodies aren’t recognizing “it’s time to get up.”) In Alaska, this effect is even more pronounced, given our short days. It’s not uncommon for students to wake in darkness and experience sunset that happens in the middle of an after school sports practice.
The overall effect is chronic sleep-deprivation. Teens aren’t getting enough sleep, and they aren’t getting high-quality sleep.
The Consequences of Sleep Deprivation in Teens
According to Start School Later, the negative consequences of teenagers missing out on sleep can include higher risks of:
- Car accidents
- Cognitive difficulties (trouble with memory, comprehension, and concentration)
- Fatigue (which can affect school performance and sports performance)
- Weight gain, obesity, and eating disorders
- Lowered immunity and increased illness
- Mood disorders like depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts
- Poor academic performance
- Poor impulse control that can lead to behavioral problems (like acting out in class or getting in fights) and high-risk health behaviors
- Substance abuse
- Tardiness, delinquency, and poor school attendance (some students even drop out)
A teenager’s complaint of being tired in the morning isn’t just the routine moaning and groaning of being a kid; sleepiness may be a serious health issue, one that could affect a student’s quality of life in the short term and in the long-term, as well.
When Should Teens Wake Up?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle school and high school students start school at 8:30 a.m. or later. Making this simple change can have huge benefits, reducing the risks of nearly every one of those issues listed above.
There’s even a financial benefit to sleeping in; according to the Brookings Institution, teens who can start school about an hour later can expect a lifetime earnings increase of about $18,000 once they enter the workforce. (Imagine how much happier and more productive teens could be if they could start school at 10:30 a.m.!)
Right now, the vast majority of U.S. states begin school before 8:30. This means a teen will need to aim for a bedtime that’s less-than-optimal if he or she experiences sleep phase delay.
The realities of getting up, getting showered and dressed, eating breakfast, and catching a bus or ride to school means that kids are rising 90 minutes to 2 hours before school begins. If the first bell is at 8:30, that can mean a wake time of 6:30. To get a good 9 hours of sleep, that student would need to be asleep by 9:30 the night before—a near impossible bedtime for a teen who won’t feel sleepy until midnight.
How to Help Your Teen Get More Sleep
Until more school systems get on board with the Start School Later movement, families must work with existing school start times. However, there are some sleep hygiene measures you can take to help students get as much sleep as possible:
- Limit evening screen time. Blue spectrum light from computers, tablets, cell phones, and gaming devices actually suppresses the release of melatonin. Using these devices late at night may further delay the onset of sleep. Students should keep their computer and phone usage to the absolute minimum in the two hours leading up to bed.
- Reduce caffeine intake. Coffee, soda, and energy drinks contain caffeine that has a long half-life—meaning it can stay in the body for up to 12 hours or more, interfering with the onset of sleep, as well as sleep quality.
- Get ready the night before. Putting out clothes, book bags, and even breakfast items the night before can allow teens to get an extra 15 to 30 minutes of sleep in the morning. Every little bit helps.
We hope you have found this information helpful. Contact Family Medical Clinic in Alaska today at (907) 262-7566.