How Long Should Children Sleep? The Tragedy of Sleep-Deprived Teenagers.
Humans are supposed to sleep when it’s dark and rise when it’s light outside. My father-in-law used to tell me a story how he would go to school when “the sun was up.” “What? You didn’t have a clock?” No, he didn’t. The sun was up, you went to school. All kids in his little village did. And in the evening, you could work the land only till you could see something. No light, no work.
Growing up in the 80s, it was not that big of a deal for me to go to bed and fall asleep. “Go to sleep.” End of story. My room had no TV, or computer, and no cell phone and or an i-pad with stimulating blue light. Today we have all necessary devices (releasing artificial light, screens) that help us work 24/7, study 24/7, play 24/7. I won’t get into the issue of how damaging the lack of sleep is to human health in general (research is abundant on the issue), but I do want to talk about what not sleeping at night does to our kids and teenagers.
How long should children sleep?
According to Sleep Foundation, preschoolers (age 3-5) should sleep 10-13 hours, school-aged children should sleep 9-11 hours, and teenagers (14-17) should sleep 8-10 hours. Pediatricians recommend 10 hours of sleep for kids of 13-19 years of age. Some of you just counted the hours and said, “Phew, my kids are somewhere there.” In reality though, only 1 in 10 kids gets 10 hours. Many parents say their kids get 8 hours of sleep, but this is a minimum recommended. We have a long way to go.
The effects of sleep deprivation.
Sleep deprivation in teenagers is an epidemic. We, teachers, observe the lack of sleep on the faces of our teenagers first hand. Students are barely awake, grumpy, obviously hungry, unable to respond to questions, participate, or engage in a rigorous academic task during their first period. They don’t know what day of the week or month it is at 8 a.m. They seem moody, stressed, lazy, lethargic, irritable, sad, negative, depressed. When parents tell me that their child is moody, depressed, does not want to socialize, sees no joy in anything, my first question is “How long does your child sleep?” In high school grades I had parents who had no idea whether their children were sleeping at night or not. “She was in her room. I know that.” I have parents who openly confess to the teacher “Well, Paul is gonna be super cranky and moody today. We got home very late from dinner and he didn’t get much sleep.” So how do our kids deal with their sleep deprivation? With energy drinks and large coffee drinks. What we have in our classrooms (even in elementary grades some parents buy their kids Starbucks in the morning or give money for unlimited soda drinks) are very tired but also very wired kids who crash by noon and need another doze of caffeine.
According to studies in behavioral sleep medicine, the teenagers’ brain is a little different. It waits till 11 pm to start releasing melatonin (our natural hormone telling our body that it’s night time). In adults and younger children melatonin is released at around 9 pm. So it’s fair to say that it takes longer for teens to fall asleep. The other day I experimented this theory with my own two kids. Same bed time, massages, and back scratches. I sat near them reading a book. My 2nd grader fell asleep within two minutes, and my middle schooler was tossing and turning for about forty minutes before falling into a deep sleep. Melatonin is our natural sleep hormone that regulates our sleep cycles and tells our brain the time of day. (People who work night shifts, pilots and frequent flyers experiencing jet lag, blind people, children with ADHD may take additional melatonin supplement to help their bodies fall asleep faster. Melatonin itself is not a sleeping drug; it only promotes sleep and helps our own hormones reset the clock for sleeping). This is very important to know. Many schools start at 7:30 a.m. Many teenagers have sport activities that start at 6 or 7 a.m. Some kids wake up at 5 a.m. to finish their homework (not ideal). So, when you wake your teenager up at 6 am, this would feel to an adult like waking up at 4 am. How productive are we when going to work at 4 am? Moreover, what kind of a drivers are we? Many car accidents caused by teenagers are due to the fact that kids drive half-asleep. Studies have shown that if you are on five or less hours of sleep, your state is equivalent to driving with a blood alcohol level above the legal limit.
Thus, the consequences of sleep deprivation go beyond students’ performance in school. Lack of sleep contributes to many of the mental health problems that arise during adolescence, including substance abuse, depression, and even suicide. According to research on teens with sleep problems (Troxel, 2017), sleep deprived teens are more likely to use alcohol, they are more likely to feel sad or hopeless, and they are more likely to struggle with obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
Ways to help your child sleep.
What can then we do? It’s not our fault that schools start early. It’s a matter of state policies. I personally wake my children up at around 6 am, and I am fully aware of all this research. There is no way around my or their schedule. In reality, schools do start at around 8 am and working parents have to drop their kids around 7:30 to make it to work. Keeping in mind that melatonin in teenagers’ brain releases at about 11 pm, the only way to let our kids sleep longer is by sending them to bed earlier. I know it’s easier said than done. Teenagers are not as cooperative. But we should use every opportunity to encourage them to go to bed early.
The healthiest sleep is uninterrupted. If your child sleeps with his/her phone by his/her side, chances are, the sound or light from an incoming message or notification will go off, possibly waking the child up, or slightly interrupting his/her sleep. Electronics should be on mute and screens placed face down. You are a hero parent if your teenagers still submit electronics to you before bed. I have interviewed my middle school and high school students whether they would give their electronics to the parents before bed time, and I literally had 3-4 students who said “yes.” They recognized their parents’ authority over the use of electronics. The rest of the students said the following, “It’s my private property.” “I bought it.” “It was a gift. It’s mine.” “My parents trust me.” “I am not gonna use it.” “Why?” “Only if I am grounded.” “My alarm is on it.” Sounds familiar? One of the students said that even on the weekends, teens text each other and wake each other up the minute their eyes open. After that quick text at 6 am, some are able to go back to sleep, and some don’t (and they are back at their five hour sleep cycle). That’s just cruel. I say “turn it off” when they are sleeping. Unfortunately, some of our teenagers are never “fully asleep,” they are experience the FOMO syndrome (the fear of missing out), and their body is used to being awake every two hours at night checking posts, likes, dislikes on their social media like Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, etc. If your child falls sleeps with the light on (even small light), turn it off when they are fully asleep. Darkness helps producing melatonin (again, powerful antioxidant hormone). I still hear many students say they sleep with the full light on.
If this is a weekend or vacation, let them sleep in. This is effective if they went to bed at a decent time, not if they went to bed at 3 am. If they soundly sleep, let them soak it in and recharge their brain. During sleep our brain is washed off toxins. It’s like putting all the puzzle pieces back into a box or into a complete puzzle, waking up feeling whole, intact, healthy.
Help them build their schedules right. If there is a way to do swimming lessons after school, use the opportunity (vs. 5:30 am). If this is a school week, ensure that children sleep at home or have confidence that friends’ parents ensure that children go to bed at a decent hour. If your kids went to bed at 8:30 pm, this does not necessarily mean they are sleeping at 9 pm. It’s ultimately our responsibility to monitor what time they actually fall asleep. If your older child is registering for college classes, remind him to choose classes as soon as he can, so he is not stuck with 7 am classes.
Educate them about the effects of sleep deprivation. We have read some articles on the issue with my 11th and 12th grade, and now at least I know that they know. They know what happens to their bodies, brain, and mood when they neglect sleep, so their reasons for neglecting sleep had better be justified.
Do not feel like a bad parent, please.
I don’t write self-help blogs. Often times I can’t even help myself or my schedule to do what I know is right. Being a parent is like adding another eight work hours to already existing eight-hour work day. Theory and practice are different things. The pressure to perform is high. The stress of not raising a child in a way that helps him/her reach his fullest potential is palpable. The guilt of not raising a healthy child is severe. The competition with other parents who seem to have it together is fierce. Parenting is difficult, and we all struggle. But to know what we don’t know is to know. Once you know something, you can’t unknow it. This knowledge shapes our habits, and if we make certain decisions about our kids’ schedules and routines, sleepovers, let’s make them consciously, with all knowledge, considering the consequences and being aware that we can always improve our parenting skills.
Hanna Grishkevich Ph.D.
Spring Mountain Christian Academy