Duke TIP

Wakin’ Up is Hard to Do: The Challenge of Sleep in the Teen Years

April 21, 2008

For many teenagers, fitting all their activities into a 24-hour day and getting enough sleep is an impossible dream. For their parents, rousing their teens every morning so they get to school on time is a big challenge.

In fact, a recent survey by the National Sleep Foundation showed that only 20 percent of teenagers report getting the optimal 9 hours of sleep on school nights. While sleep experts recommend that teenagers get 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep each night, almost half of teens surveyed report getting less than 8 hours per night—with the amount of sleep teens get declining each year; seniors in high school report getting 6.9 hours of sleep on average. Often they make up for this sleep deprivation on weekends by sleeping in; however, this type of irregular sleep pattern can contribute to a shift in sleep phase and make waking up on school days that much more difficult.

Only 20 percent of teenagers report getting the optimal 9 hours of sleep on school nights.

Causes of Sleeplessness

Why does sleep become such a problem in adolescence? For many reasons, including a reduction in parental oversight and increased academic workload. Extracurricular activities such as clubs, sports, or after-school jobs and social distractions that often invade the bedroom (Internet, instant messaging, cell phones, televisions, and video games) cause teens to delay study time until later in the evening.

On top of that, the teenage body is changing. The onset of puberty produces a sleep phase delay so that teenagers find it difficult to fall asleep until 11 p.m. or later, and then find it very difficult to get out of bed in the early morning. The fact that most high schools in this country start before 7:30 a.m. only increases the likelihood that as the school week progresses, students are accumulating massive amounts of sleep debt.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Academic Performance

Chronic sleep deprivation causes daytime sleepiness, which is most problematic during periods of low stimulation like sitting at a desk. It also leads to fatigue, making it difficult for teens to initiate or persist at certain behaviors. The National Sleep Foundation research shows sleep deprivation can impair the following brain functions that directly affect learning and school performance:

  • the ability to pay attention
  • verbal creativity and communication skills
  • creative problem solving
  • mental sharpness
  • adaptive learning and problem solving that involves the combination of new learning with previous knowledge in order to solve problems
  • overall mood and motivation, including increased irritability, low tolerance for frustration, and increased aggressive behavior.

Studies also show that new learning is consolidated through sleep. Thus, students who cram for tests by staying up late the night to study actually do worse than those who get a good night’s sleep the night before an exam.

What Can Parents Do?

Parents of teenagers are up against a number of obstacles if they decide that improving the sleep habits of their children is a priority. The most important developmental task of adolescence is to become an independent adult, and this is done, in part, by resisting parental authority. At a time when youngsters are seeking less supervision from their parents, few will accept having bedtimes dictated to them. Nonetheless, parents can help their children develop good sleep hygiene, by:

  • Educating them about the impact of insufficient sleep, not only on academic performance but in other realms that are important to teenagers, such as athletic performance and motor vehicle safety.
  • Looking for signs of sleep deprivation, such as increased irritability, difficulty concentrating, falling asleep within five minutes of going to bed, and sleeping through the alarm clock. Under no circumstances should parents allow anyone in the family to drive when sleep deprived or drowsy (drowsiness or fatigue causes over 50,000 traffic accidents each year when drivers under the age of 25 are at the wheel).
  • Keeping electronic equipment out of the bedroom or enforcing a shut-down time during mid-evening. Establishing a schedule that includes quiet, relaxing activities in the half hour before bed.
  • Making sure the sleep environment is suitable for sleeping—keep light and sound to a minimum. Caffeinated drinks, large snacks, or heavy exercise in the hours before bed also result in sleeplessness.
  • Trying to keep bedtime and wake-time schedules constant on both school days and weekends.
  • Monitoring the use of naps to combat sleepiness. Short naps (20-30 minutes) are the best way to improve alertness. Long naps can result in grogginess and interfere with nighttime sleep.
  • Being a good role model by practicing good sleep habits themselves.

What Can Schools Do?

  • First of all, advocate changing the start time for high schools. Bus schedules and after school activities, including sports and employment, often make school administrators reluctant to look at this option. Since schools in the Minneapolis area pushed back their school start time several years ago, other districts around the country have started exploring this option. The National Science Foundation reports that individual schools or districts in 19 states have delayed start times, and more than 100 school districts in 17 other states are considering similar changes.
  • Build units on sleep hygiene and the dangers of sleep deprivation into the curriculum of high school health classes. Driving drowsy is dangerous, and driver education classes should inform students about the dangers and prevention of driving while sleepy.
  • Communicate with parents about the importance of good sleep habits. An ideal time to raise the importance of good sleep habits for children is during school open houses, which generally take place early in the school year. Articles in school newspapers, notices in parent bulletins and on the school Web site can educate the entire school community about the importance of sleep and its central role in strong academic performance.

—Peg Dawson, EdD

Peg Dawson is a psychologist at the Center for Learning and Attention Disorders in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.


National Sleep Foundation Web site

Adolescent Sleep Patterns: Biological, Social, and Psychological Influences By Mary A. Carskadon, Cambridge University, 2002

The Promise of Sleep, by William C. Dement and Christopher Vaughan, Delacorte, 1999