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Let Sleeping Teens Lie?

We are getting towards the end of the longest school term in the UK and everyone is, let's face it, knackered.

But long school term aside, could some of this fatigue be put down to the fact that your child isn't getting enough sleep? People in general are recommended to have 7 – 9 hours sleep. However teenagers, with all the changes and growth going on in their bodies have slightly different sleep needs. As young people move into adolescence their sleep patterns shift a little, so they will naturally fall asleep a bit later, around 11pm. However, their sleep requirements also change, and they start to need nearer to 9 or 10 hours a night to function properly.

And by function properly, what exactly do I mean? Well a lack of sleep will lead to the following problems:

  • Reduced motivation

  • Poor concentration

  • Low immune system and therefore more illness

  • Unstable emotional state

  • Low mood or depressive state and increased anxiety

And in athletes, the following will occur:

  • Reduction in reaction times

  • Decrease in muscle strength

  • Decrease in anaerobic and aerobic performance (sprints and endurance to you and me)

  • Disruption in their ability to utilise food effectively for energy

  • Higher perception of effort and pain

  • The best sleep for recovery (REM) happens more frequently and for longer periods at the end of the night's sleep, so the less sleep you have, the less recovered you will be.

I can hear the general sounds of panic and a rush to chivvy your teenagers towards the bedroom. But let's take a moment to look at the facts and make a plan.

Firstly, if your child is falling asleep at 11pm and needing 10 hours a night, that takes us through to 9am – immediately this isn't sounding practical, so rather than aiming for perfection, let's look at a best case scenario.

  1. Firstly getting as much sleep as possible day to day.

  2. Have a plan for sleep catch up that doesn't totally disrupt their body's routine.

How to encourage your teenager to get as much sleep as possible day to day

Most of you reading have sporty teenagers, but for those that don't, encourage physical activity. 60 minutes of moderate activity per day is advised and will ensure a tired body and mind at bed time.

Not getting enough sleep is often down to poor planning and leaving things to the last minute. Try to encourage good time management and planning ahead for school and sport deadlines. Spending hours after school on social media etc. and then desperately trying to finish homework at 10pm is not going to make for enough sleep or quality sleep (or quality homework for that matter) So set a homework curfew which could also include a screen curfew (we'll come to that later) to encourage getting things done early and switching off.

Create a good sleep routine. Stick to a set time to get ready for bed and start preparing 20 – 30 minutes before bed time. In this time, stay off screens, relax (have a bath/shower, read a book?) and try to stay in low light. And just because science says teenagers get tired at 11pm, if yours is tired earlier, make the bedtime routine earlier.

Ensure the bedroom is a good sleep environment – dark, quiet and the right temperature (18C is considered the optimum temperature for quality sleep). Hand held devices and TV remotes should be out of reach, or even better, out of the room. Consider black out blinds, eye masks or earplugs for those very sensitive to light and noise.

If getting to sleep is a problem, this is often down to anxiety. Encourage your teen to deal with problems that might make them anxious and unable to get to sleep, perhaps make a list of things that need to be thought about and dealt with, for the next day. This will help to draw a line under it and ensure they are not obsessively worrying.

Planning to catch up on sleep

However hard you and your teenager try to fit in that magic 10 hours, it isn't always going to happen. And in the process, your teen will be learning about their body and how it reacts when tired, which is a positive thing. But what should you do if they have got overtired?

Firstly, napping can be a simple adjustment to being overtired, but there are very specific rules. Stick to half an hour, so either plan for a nap and set an alarm, or have some caffeine just before which takes about 30 minutes to take effect and will than wake them up naturally. The trick for napping is to do it before mid afternoon, the minute you start napping late afternoon and evening it will disrupt an already fragile sleep pattern.

Secondly, holidays and weekends can be used to catch up on sleep to a certain extent. Although the science tells us that maintaining a set sleep routine is the healthiest thing, let's get real and accept the fact that teens are not going to get up at 7am on the weekend if they don't have to. But try to ensure they don't sleep in for too long, as this will totally mess up their sleep routine and ultimately make them feel worse. Aiming for the magic 10 hours and / or a nap would be the best way to replenish their sleep deprived bodies and minds.

And lastly, as a parent it can be hard to implement these ideas with reluctant teens. If your children are still young I suggest you crack on with these habits as soon as possible. If your teens are older and exerting their independence, I would suggest sharing this information with them and encouraging them to make the right choices. Remind them of some of the ideas when they are obviously suffering from lack of sleep but do so without judging them. And lastly, try to set a good example of your own sleep routine as teens are very good of reminding you of your own shortcomings when you question theirs!

Key Points

  • Most teenagers don't get enough sleep

  • Lack of sleep has very real effects both physically and mentally and will adversely affect the performance of young athletes

  • Good sleep needs to be planned for

  • Keep hand-held devices and TV remotes out of reach or out of the bedroom

  • Deal with anxiety before bed

  • Keep bedrooms dark, quiet and the right temperature

  • Use weekends and holidays to catch up a bit, but no more than 10 hours

  • Nap sensibly where possible

Do contact us for more information or to discuss specific worries about your own child's sleep habits.

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