By Karen Weintraub
Though his junior year hasn’t yet started, Matt Brown, 15, is already back to waking up early enough to get to 6 a.m. football practice. His mother, Megan, sets her alarm for 5:20 a.m., too, so she can make sure he doesn’t sleep through his alarm — again.
It’s a familiar August battle against biology and habit, after a summer of relaxation and late bedtimes.
Getting back into the routine of waking up early is tough for everyone, but particularly for teens, whose bodies are wired for late nights, and who face the social pressures of after-hours texting and social networking.
Megan Brown, a stay-at-home mom in Darien, Conn., says she wondered briefly whether to “stop the fun” a few weeks ago and ease into the earlier wake-up. She opted instead for short-term suffering.
“We are very much the ‘stay up to 2 a.m., sleep ’til noon’ kind of people,” she says.
Tips for helping your kids get a good night’s sleep
Turn off all electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime. The light from electronics, including TVs, computers, phones and other devices, can make it harder to fall asleep. And the beeps from incoming messages can wake kids up or discourage them from heading to bed.
Set a bedtime, even for teens. Kids who know they are expected to get adequate sleep are more responsible about it. Limit after-dinner snacks, and don’t make kids do chores, like finally cleaning their rooms, just before bedtime.
Limit caffeine. Caffeine is OK in the morning, but caffeinated beverages within seven or eight hours of bedtime disrupt sleep quality and make falling asleep harder.
Transition slowly if possible. Getting up a few minutes earlier every few days for two weeks makes the transition from summer to school smoother. If it’s already too late, get on a regular schedule as quickly as possible and stick with it.
Don’t overcompensate. On weekends, one night of catch-up sleep is helpful, but a second night of going to bed and waking up hours later will start to reset the sleep schedule and make Monday morning that much harder.
Napping is OK as long as it’s consistent and not within six to eight hours of bedtime. Taking a two-hour nap after dinner and then trying to do homework will certainly interfere with a decent night’s sleep, and probably with the homework, too.
Research is now clear that sleep is important in myriad ways. Lack of sleep combined with genetic vulnerabilities can lead to heart disease, depression, a weakened immune system and obesity-related diabetes, says Mary Carskadon, a professor of psychiatry at Brown University and director of Chronobiology and Sleep Research at E.P. Bradley Hospital in Providence.
A good night’s sleep is also crucial for learning.
“It helps you to prepare to learn, and also to benefit from what you’ve learned in the day,” Carskadon says. “It’s the glue that keeps that information and sharpens it in your brain.”
But kids, particularly teens, still get too little sleep. With the hormonal changes of adolescence, body clocks shift later. The average teen can’t fall asleep until 11 p.m. or midnight — and when they need to wake up at 6 or 7 a.m., there’s no way they can get sleep they need, Carskadon and others say. While adults need seven to nine hours a night, elementary school kids should be in bed for roughly 10 hours, middle schoolers and high schoolers at least nine, she says.
Younger children generally don’t have as much trouble adjusting; they haven’t shifted as much during the summer, they still have enforceable bedtimes, they’re generally less addicted to social media, and elementary schools often start at 8 or 9, later than many high schools.
Susan Rausch, like many sleep experts, thinks it’s a terrible idea to start school so early in the morning, because it’s so counter to what teens need biologically.
“If we’re teaching to a test, I’m not sure why we’re not teaching to the biology,” says Rausch, medical director of the Sleep Center at Memorial, a lab and sleep clinic in Yakima, Wash.
Not all sleep problems are out of kids’ control, however.
Late-night texting, TV time and computer use also cut down on the quality and quantity of sleep. Rausch and others recommend turning off electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime to decompress, and removing the bright lights that can suppress levels of the hormone melatonin and make it harder to fall asleep.
And that catch-up sleep on weekends can make people sleepier, says Richard Seligman, medical director for Presbyterian Sleep Disorders Center in Albuquerque. The first night of extra sleep can help compensate for too-short nights during the week. But a second or third — as many will be tempted to do over Labor Day weekend — will throw off body clocks and make the next few days miserable, he says.
Matt and his sister Mary, 13, both have pretty good sleep patterns for busy teens. They have TVs in their rooms and they text on their phones, but their mom says they haven’t abused those privileges.
She says she freaked out recently when Matt came home from morning football practice with an energy drink. “That can’t be good for you,” she said. But she told him he could use the drinks until classes started.
And the end of lazy summer mornings isn’t the end of the world, she says.
“They’re psyched to get back to seeing their friends and a regular pattern,” she adds. “Summer’s been really, really fun, but it’s time to go back.”