Let the teens sleep!

For those of us who have ever raised teenagers and tried to wake them in the morning, you might be interested in a new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP has recognized that insufficient sleep in adolescents can affect their health, safety, as well as academic performance. The main culprit for this lack of sleep has been shown to be earlier school start times (defined as before 8:30 am). Many studies have proven that delaying school start times is an effective solution and provides benefits to teens’ health and school performance.

Due to biological changes brought on by adolescence there is actually a shift in the sleep-wake cycle of about two hours – meaning they cannot fall asleep until later and they also wake later. The optimal amount of sleep doesn’t change from prepubertal times and remains from 8.5 to 9.5 hours per night. However most teens find it difficult to fall asleep before 11 pm, meaning they should be waking after 8 am for optimal sleep.  According to the latest US DOE data, 43% of US public highs schools have a start time prior to 8 AM.

Not surprisingly, studies have shown US teens to be chronically sleep deprived. A National Sleep Foundation poll found 59% of middle schoolers and 87% (!!) of high schoolers were not getting 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep per night. The average was 7 hours for high school seniors. Sleep-deprived teens are at risk for such issues as mood, attention, memory, or behavior impairments as well as the obvious, worse academic performance. Numerous studies show a direct correlation between decreased sleep duration and lower academic achievement from middle school through college.

Many school districts across the country have responded to this issue and schools that have instituted later start times have seen the following benefits:

  • Improved sleep duration without later sleep onset times
  • Decreased levels of self-reported sleepiness and fatigue
  • Improved attendance rates and increases in continuous enrollment
  • Less self-reported symptoms of depression and improved motivation
  • Locally decreased car crash rates involving high school students

Interestingly, improvements in academic performance have been somewhat mixed. Some studies have shown only minimal improvements while others are more notable. One research group demonstrated greater improvement in middle school students at the lower end of test score distribution compared to the above average group, which persisted through high school.

This may be an important area to advocate for our adolescents – because wouldn’t everyone benefit from less-grumpy teens?

Jeff Ribordy, MD

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