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Why Teenagers Need More Sleep — And Why High Schools Should Push Start Times Later

Expert Chats

Teenagers are notoriously tired, but why? Sleep Specialist Dr. Noah Siegel talks about what causes sleep deprivation in teenagers and how schools can help fix it.

Did you know that teenagers need roughly nine hours of sleep per night? How about that on average, teenagers today are sleeping less than seven of those hours?

Unlike grown adults, who only need seven to eight hours of sleep per night, teenagers are at an important stage in their growth and development — one that relies on a well-rested body to properly progress.

This developmental stage also causes a biological shift that changes their internal clock. For some, their sleep rhythm can be shifted by up to two hours, meaning those who once fell asleep at 9:00 pm are now unable to fall asleep until 11:00 pm.

This also means they should be waking up later each morning. However, school start times don’t always allow for this, leaving teenagers without enough sleep hours.

“Between daytime demands such as school work, extracurricular activities and social engagements, it doesn’t seem like there is enough time in the day for teenagers to get a healthy night of sleep,” said Noah S. Siegel, MD, director of the Sleep Medicine and Surgery Division at Massachusetts Eye and Ear. “Sleep deprivation can impact many aspects of one’s life including productivity, academic performance and mood. It’s important to get a full night of sleep.”

The impact school start times have on sleep

The average start time for high schools is 8:00 am, with some beginning as early as 7:00 am. Considering how long it takes students to get ready, eat breakfast and commute in the morning, some teenagers are waking up around 5:00 am each day.

If their natural sleep cycle does not kick in until 11:00 pm every night, they are left with fewer hours than they need for their night’s sleep.

Some have proposed delaying school times so they better align with the sleep time of students. For high schools, they should study the times of the day when teenagers are most alert, focused and productive.

“Often times, attention and focus are not optimal for the first couple hours of the school day,” said Dr. Siegel. “Until students adequately wake up, they are not going to be terribly productive. Sleep is linked to many things they need each day at school, such as attention, memory, decision-making abilities and creativity. Without enough sleep, these skills will not function to their fullest.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 am to give students the opportunity to get the amount of sleep they need. This can help students be more present in the classroom and healthier overall.

What teenagers can do at home

Since school start times are out of many people’s control, there are things that can be done at home to improve sleep quality for teenagers. In fact, sleep routines at home are important no matter what time school starts.

Dr. Siegel recommends the following:

  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule (go to bed and wake up at the same time each day)
  • Do not to oversleep on the weekends or take afternoon naps
  • Turn off all electronics and other brain-stimulating activities well before bedtime
  • Avoid stimulants such as strenuous exercise, heavy meals, caffeine, and energy drinks before bed
  • Keep a cool, quiet sleep environment

The bottom line

Changing school start times can offer teenagers the opportunity to get the nine or more hours of sleep that they need, and establishing healthy sleep behaviors at home can help ensure that they do.

“Sleep is an essential part of our physical and mental well-being,” said Dr. Siegel. “Building a healthy relationship with it is something I encourage everyone, especially teenagers, to do.”

About our expert

Dr. Noah Siegel specializes in comprehensive otolaryngology and sleep medicine. He sees patients at Mass. Eye and Ear’s Longwood location.

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