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How Much Sleep Do Teens Need?

Most of us are aware that sleep is an important biological function. Lack of sleep is associated with a wide range of physical and mental health issues. These can impact current health and daily functioning and have future health consequences.

But what we may not realise is that good quality, uninterrupted sleep is particularly important for teenagers. That’s because it’s a significant time for their physical, mental and emotional development.

The science of sleep

In terms of the ‘science of sleep’, our internal body clock regulates our sleep cycle. It’s a 24-hour cycle known as the circadian rhythm. At night, melatonin (a natural hormone) is produced in the brain and released into the bloodstream. Darkness prompts the production of melatonin, and light (natural or artificial) causes that production to stop.

In the morning, another hormone, cortisol, is involved in the body’s wakefulness cycle. Melatonin drops to its lowest level as cortisol rises. If a person’s melatonin and cortisol levels are abnormal, it can lead to problems with sleep.

How much sleep do teens need?

When it comes to our teens, they are often facing disruptions to their normal sleep cycle. Late nights studying, talking with friends or even just hanging out online can mean they get less sleep then they should.

This all means that teens are often getting less sleep than they should. But teenage bodies, minds and emotions are undergoing significant growth, change and development. So sleep guidelines from the Australian Department of Health recommend adolescents aged 14 to 17 years should get about eight to 10 hours of good quality, uninterrupted sleep in each 24-hour period.

Do teens get enough sleep?

The findings from Growing Up In Australia Longitudinal Study of Australian Childrenshow that  during the high school years (from ages 12 and 13 to 16 and 17 years), many teens do not get adequate sleep:

  • Around one in four teens aged 12 to 15 do not get enough sleep.
  • Adolescents aged 12 to 17 years are less likely to sleep the minimum required hours on school nights compared to non-school nights.
  • Around half of those between the ages of 16 and 17 do not get enough sleep on school nights.

Problems of not enough sleep

When you think about how much sleep do teens need, and how many are not meeting those minimum sleep requirements, it’s no wonder that problems arise.

Teens who do not meet minimum sleep guidelines are more likely to:

  • Exhibit signs of poor mental health (unhappiness, anxiety, depression).
  • Experience issues with school, from lateness and absence to difficulty concentrating in class and completing homework.
  • Have internet access in their bedroom or otherwise spend more time online.

Older teens are the group most at risk of not getting enough sleep, particularly on school nights. There are many reasons why older teens develop problematic sleep habits:

  • Biological changes associated with puberty. One of these changes is that melatonin is released later in the evening, which can lead to their staying up later and then sleeping in the next morning.
  • Shifting friend and family relationships.
  • Increased academic and extra-curricular commitments at school.
  • Casual or part-time work.
  • Increased time online.  

How teens can improve their sleep hygiene?

Luckily teens can be taught good strategies to improve their ability to get to sleep and develop good sleep habits. 

1. Be active in natural light

Being physically active through the day, particularly in natural light, encourages the body to produce melatonin, which will trigger feelings of tiredness in the evening.

2. Create a sleep routine (and stick to it!)

Going to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time each morning helps the body to function well within a sleep cycle. It can also help with tracking whether your teen is getting enough sleep.

Sleep location is also important. A dark, quiet bedroom without distracting phones or devices is ideal. It can also help if the bedroom has a window that will allow natural morning light to enter, which encourages the waking-up routine.  

3. Calm your mind

For teens, the concerns and worries of the day can start looping through their brain right as they’re trying to get to sleep. This can have a big impact on their ability to get to sleep. Relaxation or mindfulness techniques can help to calm their mind and be a key part of the sleep routine.

If your teen has significant trouble with calming their mind before sleep, it could be a sign that their mental health may need additional support.

4. 3pm cut off for caffeine

Caffeine is a stimulant that gives your brain and nervous system an energy boost. This isn’t ideal when your teen is struggling to sleep! Be mindful of any after-school caffeine-containing foods and drinks – in particular, chocolate, cola, energy drinks and some protein bars (as well as tea and coffee).

5. Screen-free wind down

The light from televisions, computers, mobiles and tablet screens may suppress the production of melatonin at night, and delay feelings of sleepiness. This then delays your teen from actually falling asleep, along with the mental or emotional stimulation of what may have been viewed on screen.

A screen-free wind down is an important part of the night-time routine. Listening to music, reading a book or practicing mindfulness or calm breathing techniques may assist.

Author: Di O’Malley – Founder and Managing Director of Young Minds Health and Development Network, and Counselling Psychologist.

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